Goodbye, Code Switching! The Dos and Don’ts for Any Language Immersion Classroom

Students mixing English into every sentence?

Are they struggling to stay in the target language?

Falling back on English when they get stumped or nervous?

This is called code switching and it’s all too common in language classrooms—especially in immersion classrooms, where we’re trying to stay in the target language 100 percent of the time.

The goal is to avoid this code switching, and instead, switch their brains into target language mode.

There are plenty of different reasons why students might fall back into their native language habits.

It’s not for lack of effort or because they aren’t interested in your class.

It’s safe, it’s comfortable, it’s familiar territory. Brains need plenty of training to be able to stay functioning in a non-native language.

Sometimes they simply get so excited about the subject you’re discussing that they can’t seem to help it. It’s only human to want to communicate with those around us!

Sure, other animals communicate too—but have you ever seen a school of dolphins so passionate about the last movie they watched that they can’t stop chattering in Dolphin? Their clicks and whistles are more reserved for letting others know where food and danger is.

We humans tend to go a little beyond that—we love to talk, talk, talk.

How to Keep Your Immersion Classroom in the Target Language

That love of talk, talk, talking is the main reason why immersion classrooms work.

Immersion has proved itself to be the single most successful pedagogical approach in language classrooms. Time and time again, immersion is tested against other language teaching approaches and it comes out victorious.

ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) recommends that 90% of instruction time be conducted in the target language (TL).

There’s just one little problem that gets in the way, and I mentioned it not too long ago.

Code switching.

Staying true to the target language and not “cheating” can be a challenge, especially in class environments where students share a common first language (L1) or use English as a lingua franca.

When I first started working as a Spanish teacher, I was in my native Argentina and had students from all over the world. Remaining in the TL wasn’t an issue because my learners were immersed in it on a daily basis. For some, using the little Spanish they spoke was the only common means of communication they shared with their peers and their teacher. But even those students who shared English as their second or third language with others didn’t think of using any other language than the one they were trying to acquire. Conducting an immersion class was simply not an issue.

In the language teaching jargon, this is known as the distinction between second language acquisition and foreign language acquisition. An instructor teaching Spanish in Spain or one teaching French in France is teaching a second language. An instructor teaching Mandarin in the U.S. or an instructor teaching Italian in Portugal is teaching a foreign language. Running a successful immersion class when the language is being taught as a “foreign language” can turn out to be more challenging.

So, you need to bring your students closer to the TL, even if they’re not living in a place where it’s spoken. You need to make them feel like my Spanish students felt in Argentina—surrounded by the language, needing it to communicate, connect and survive everywhere.

How can you maintain a culture of immersion that includes everyone?

How do you reach those students who struggle to switch off their “native language brain” while you keep a steady pace of input and output?

How do you make those students who think they’re bad at learning a new language accept your invitation to immerse in it?

And how do you strive for a language class that’s 90% immersion when you are in the early stages of instruction?

These dos and don’ts will help you run a successful immersion class from the very start. You’ll find that these guidelines will help your students stay in the target language and will be immensely gratifying for you as an instructor.

Kiss code switching goodbye!

The Major Dos and Don’ts for Any Language Immersion Classroom

1. Set the Right Tone

Don’t walk into your first class and introduce yourself in any language other than the one you are about to teach.

Do use greetings and introductions in the target language. Start by greeting students in one or two different ways. If one way gets blank stares, try another introduction with different vocabulary.

Do use repetition and gestures to elicit a choral response. This is a great way to let your students know that they’re going to be active participants in the class and that they’ll be functioning almost exclusively in the TL.

Don’t translate. No matter what language you’re teaching, the meaning of your greeting will be understood by context and there’s absolutely no need to translate what you are saying. After a few lessons, students will know to expect your introductions when class starts.

Do say your name. Sure, they might already know it, but it adds a little more context and familiar information each time.

Write your name on the board: Je m’appelle…, Ich heisee…, Eu sou

Say this out loud a few times. Let them hear you. Let them read your words on the board. Let it all sink in.

More advanced students might require a more advanced approach and more complex introductions of course.

Do use a hacky sack to indicate to involve students. Kick or throw the hacky sack to let them know that it’s now their turn to introduce themselves. Throw it out to a student, have her introduce herself and throw it back to you. Repeat your sentence again to ensure good pronunciation. Throw it to another student, have him speak and throw it back to you. Repeat this process as needed until the class is warmed up, relaxed and ready to start the lesson.

2. Get to Know Each Other

Don’t waste the chance to let your students know you.

Do take advantage of the opportunity to communicate by getting to know them and having them know you.

Take advantage of the fact that you and your students are just getting to know each other. You don’t even have to pretend to want to communicate. You actually want to communicate. You’re naturally excited to get to know them and they’re eager to know who this new teacher person is.

Who are you? Where are you from? Where do you live? What do you like to do?

Do tell students interesting facts about yourself.

The choices you make here will depend on the TL you’re teaching and the type of grammatical structures you’re planning to introduce in the first few lessons. For example, I like starting my Spanish lessons by teaching the verb ser, which is one of the forms of “to be.” So, I usually start the first day of classes by introducing two main contexts in which ser will be used: Identity (my name) and origin (where I’m from).

Again, use a hacky sack to invite students to give information about themselves.

Do gauge the content you choose.

If your students already know the basics, you can get really creative with the kinds of things you talk about. Talk about your family, friends, weekends, vacations, pets and hobbies. Tell them about the books and movies you like. Sprinkle this information into your lessons and encourage your students to share too. This is really a great way to kick off any lesson.

Make sure to reinforce this content through multiple techniques in your lessons. This content should be repeated in both student production and student comprehension. 

Use your judgment and adjust your introductory content to make it relevant to the structures you want to teach first.

3. Make Cognates Your Friends

Don’t select words that have no resemblance to the native languages of your students.

Don’t choose false cognates to get things rolling. Those can be interesting to teach to more advanced students.

Do use cognates (words that descend from a common ancestor) to help students feel comfortable with the content and boost their confidence right from the start.

Of course this piece of advice will only apply to languages in the same family, say, for example, in branches across the Indo-European family tree. Appropriate examples will abound in English and German (both in the Germanic subfamily) when compared to Spanish, French or Italian (all Romance languages).

Do keep it simple. Creating the right class climate is more important than being super precise. If I wanted to teach Portuguese to a group of English speakers, I wouldn’t start my first lesson addressing them as alunos (pupils) because the word resembles the Latin word alumnus, commonly used in English to refer to a group of graduates or former students. The Portuguese aluno and the English “alumnus” are false cognates and there’s no need to trouble your learners with such concerns when they’re just getting familiarized with the language. Instead, I would use the Portuguese word estudante.

4. Move!

Don’t teach from the comfort of your seat. There’s nothing less exciting for students.

Do move around the classroom. Occupy every part of it. Use gestures. Have your students do the same! The best teachers are those who can move their bodies and turn themselves and their students into performers. The more they connect language with real-world items and actions, the better.

Do use props and interact with items in the classroom. Better yet, if students are involved in these interactions with real items, the likelihood that they’ll make that magic switch and want to stay in the TL will increase.

The application of this principle can be as simple as taking a book, describing it and giving it to a student. Body language and kinetics are language learners’ best companions.

Let’s say you are teaching French in Italy and you want to refer to “the red book.” All of a sudden something as trivial as il libro rosso (Italian) turns into an opportunity to teach articles, adjectives and the agreement of those to the noun. All of that in a simple combination of words whose connection with the real object that students have in front of them leaves no doubt: le livre rouge (French).

5. Check for Understanding

Do check for understanding.

Don’t check for understanding by reverting to English or another native language of the students.

Teachers often make the mistake of bringing up L1 to check for understanding. If they’re striving for a 90% immersion class, perhaps they’re thinking of that moment as the opportunity to use their 10% L1 “allowance.” Testing comprehension can be an acceptable situation in which to use L1, but it’s not necessary. The real world around your will be your best measurement tool.

If you have a red book in front of you and can refer to it, why disrupt the flow of the immersion class by bringing up unneeded words in the native language?

Do add grammar to the mix, without the native language.

A common mistake is to think that in the early stages of language acquisition you can’t teach basic grammatical concepts unless you resort to a shared language that will ease student anxiety. But sometimes the anxiety comes from the instructor rather than the learners.

Imagine how many things you can add to the red book in order to teach verb conjugations or gender and number agreement:

il libro è rosso (the book is red)

i libri sono rossi (the books are red)

la penna è rossa (the pen is red)

Go nuts!

6. Mixing Languages Doesn’t Work

Don’t throw in words in L1 as part of the flow of your TL speech.

Combining the use of your TL with words in L1 prevents students from easing into the flow of the class and surrendering to immersion. This is what I call the Skippyjon Jones syndrome in honor of a series of children’s picture books about a Siamese cat who, not happy with being just an ordinary cat, takes the persona of a Mexican Chihuahua called Skippito and embarks on crazy adventures—also slipping in Spanish words that, ay caramba, are mucho fun!

While this approach may be fun for Skippy’s fans, mixing languages in class isn’t a good idea because it makes it hard for the brain to perform that cognitive switch that’s so crucial for the learning process. That switch is an exercise that students need to get accustomed to from the beginning.

Eventually the practice of making that cognitive switch and spending thousands of hours learning a language will lead to the more or less seamless transitions that fluent and bilingual individuals are able to make. As experts say, speaking two or more languages changes your mind. It’s like weightlifting for your brain, so much so that it can even increase the size of it.

So why obstruct that switch by creating unnecessary contamination? Stick to the TL as much as you can.

Do teach them “how do you say ____?” and “what does ____ mean?”

One of the most useful tools you can offer class participants from the start is to tell them how to ask, in the TL, what something means or how to say something.

If students are actively engaged in the learning process, they’re going to need these phrases all the time. What better way for them to learn than by using phrases in the language, not because the instructor asks them to, but because they genuinely want to communicate something?

The constant flow of these phrases being thrown around in class will be music to your ears.

So, go ahead and teach these phrases in the TL from day one:

What does ____ mean?
How do you say ____ ?

Do write things on the board.

As with everything, the best way to get these phrases to stick is to model them and write them on the board. Use them yourself while you point at something so that there’s no room for doubt. For example, if you are modeling the first phrase by using the French word la table, make sure you point at a table.

Do pause as needed to work in the students’ native language.

Do pick a code word.

Having classroom rules and routines is great to build a class culture and boost a sense of community among participants. For the purpose of maintaining immersion, this rule can be as simple as picking single word.

For example, you can establish that every person in the class, the instructor included, needs to ask for permission before saying a word or asking a question in their native language. If this goes along with a gesture, even better, as you’ll be applying the principle of #4 above, which is Move!

This word would only be used as a last resort, when students have already exhausted all other possibilities to remain in the TL. You can also ask a student to try to speak in the TL before giving permission to switch into the native language.

Here’s an example of how this tip would play out in a Spanish class in which all participants share English as their common language. Let’s say that the code word is Permiso (permission) and a peace sign:


Me llamo María. Mi libro es… azul, mhh, no azul…” (My name is María. My book is… blue, hmm… not blue…).

Permiso, what’s that other word for light blue in Spanish?”

In case you’re wondering, the color light blue in Spanish is celeste, just like celestial. See? Cognates really are your friends!


Those are my major dos and don’ts to avoid code switching in the immersion classroom.

There are a million other ways to go, but this is a good place to start.

You can also use your creativity to make immersion more fun, moving forward. Find the artist in you and let students do the same—having them draw words instead of using their native language.

Visual queues can help with retention and they don’t create unnecessary native-language contamination. I still remember the cute image my high school English teacher drew next to the word “mouse” when I was learning English for the first time.

If you absolutely find yourself needing to use the native language, choose to do it in writing instead of orally. Again, this helps keep the flow of your TL nice and clean.

And, no matter what else you do, slow down, simplify your speech and enunciate clearly.

This will minimize the need to resort to the native language, increasing the chances that your students will ease into the target language.

Before long, they’ll all have accepted your warm invitation to immerse themselves in it.

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