A Study of Bilingual Chinese/English Children's Code Switching

Article excerpt


This paper reports the findings from a study that explores young Chinese/English bilingual children's code switching behavior in a Chinese language program. In particular, it describes one bilingual child's patterns of language use. The findings suggest that code switching was used as a communicative device by the children in the study. They switched languages during their speech in order to realize social function, pragmatic function, and meta-linguistic function. Educational implications are also provided.


Moving in and out of Languages

In the past two decades, an increasing number of students from diverse linguistic backgrounds entered American public schools. This trend is continuing. However, researchers have noted that many teachers are poorly prepared to meet the challenge of educating diverse student populations because they are not well informed of how linguistically different children acquire and use language in the current educational milieu (Tabors & Snow, 2001).

The purpose of this study is to explore young Chinese/English bilingual children's code switching behavior in a Chinese language program. In particular, this paper describes one bilingual child's language use patterns. The study seeks to answer the following questions: a) What are some major patterns of language use with bilingual Chinese children? b) What are some factors that influence their language choice? By answering these questions, the researcher aims to bring insights into the complex issue of language acquisition and its use with bilingual student populations. The answers in turn will add to our understanding of how to tap into and capitalize on bilingual children's linguistic repertoire so that we can maximize their learning.

Code switching is a frequently occurred phenomenon in bilinguals' discourse (Domingue, 1990; Myers-Scotton, 1993). Many linguists consider code switching a very critical issue in bilingualism (Myers-Scotton, 1993; Romaine, 1994), and it has a significant impact on bilingualism both at the societal level and individual level (Romaine, 1994). Code switching is defined by Gumperz (1982) as "the juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems or subsystems" (p. 59). With bilinguals, the term code switching refers to the behavior of switching between different languages in discourse, oral or written. Code switching in adult conversations has been widely studied by researchers using sociolinguistic, grammatical, and psycholinguistic approaches. Among them, the sociolinguistic approach has been most influential. This approach focuses on bilinguals' communicative competence and motivation for code switching and code choice. Sociolinguists argue that one should investigate bilinguals' language use and code switching not only in terms of linguistic rules, but more importantly, the rules of language use that are shared by the members of the community to accomplish communicative functions (Romaine, 1989).

In a sharp contrast to prescriptive linguistics, Gumperz (1982) suggests that code switching has important discourse functions for bilinguals. They constantly make choices about what language to be used during interactions. Bilingual speakers jointly construct social meaning situated in the interactions. The functions of code switching range from conveying intentional meaning to signaling the social identities of the parties involved. Some research has also been conducted to specifically explore bilingual children's code switching behaviors (e.g., Bauer & Montero, 2001; Fantini, 1985; McClure, 1977; Saunders, 1982). Findings suggest that bilingual children switch languages according to the cognitive demands of the tasks and the contextual demands such as participants and topics. However, these linguistic case studies usually focus on how children use languages in the home setting with adults/parents or their siblings. …