Bilingual Education and Code-Switching
by Zainab Al Bulushy


The number of languages spoken throughout the world is estimated to be 6,000 (Grimes 1992). Available data indicate that there are more bilingual individuals in the world than there are monolinguals. The use of multiple languages in education may be attributed to numerous factors among which is promoting proficiency in an international language of wider communication. Bilingual education language programmes, as Milk (1981) points out, strive for dual language development and define teacher language-use goals in terms of balanced use of the two languages in the classroom (English and the native language of the learners). Consequently, bilinguals and second language learners are not recognised as two distinct groups, but related and interacted clusters.

English in the world

The world has been watching the English language grow and establish a unique position that no other language in the world can achieve. It has achieved a global status by developing a special role that is recognised in every country. This role is obvious in countries where a large number of people speak it as a mother tongue such as Britain, United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and several Caribbean countries. English is also made the official language in over 70 countries such as India, Nigeria, Singapore and many others. In such position, English is used as a medium of communication in many domains like administration, law courts, media and educational systems. It is also considered as a foreign and international language in over 100 countries.

The spread of English is very fast and noticeable in the world. In his book 'The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language' Pennycook (1994: 7) presents Otto Jespessen's (1938/68) estimation of speakers of English. He states that it numbered four million in 1500, six million in 1600, eight and a half million in 1900. The number is in a continuous growth throughout the centuries and within different parts of the world, thus by the year 2000 we expect the number to increase up to 700 million or one billion. Those speakers include the native speakers of English, speakers of English as a second language and speakers of English as a foreign language. There are several reasons for such spread of English. One of these is socio-cultural, which relates to people's dependence on English for their well being including politics, businesses, safety, entertainment, media and education. Thus, English has become the language of communication in the world and then appeared the need to learn English to make this communication easier.

English as a second / foreign language

There are some important contextual differences between English being a second language or a foreign language in a specific country. Crystal (1997) distinguishes between the two affirming that a second language is a language to be made the official language of a country, to be used as a medium of communication in such domains as government, the law courts, the media and the educational system. Getting on in such societies requires the master of the official language as early in life as possible. The second language in this case is seen as a compliment to the person's mother tongue, or 'first language' as Cook (1991: 66) defines it "A language acquired by a person in addition to his mother tongue". In the case of English, it has the official status (second language) in more than 70 countries as mentioned above.

English as a foreign language, in contrast, applies when the language is made a hot recess in a country's foreign-language teaching even though it has no official status. Crystal (1997) comments that it becomes the language which children are most likely to be taught when they arrive in school, and the one most available to adults, who for whatever reasons, never learnt it. Choosing a particular language to be a foreign language in a country depends on reasons such as historical tradition, political expediency and the desire for commercial, cultural or technological contact. "English is now the language most widely taught as a foreign language -in over 100 countries such as China, Russia, Germany, Spain, Egypt and Brazil- and in most of these countries it is emerging as the chief foreign language to be encountered in schools" (Crystal 1997: 4). The Sultanate of Oman is also one of the countries considering English a foreign language, as discussed in chapter (1).

When we come to the conditions for teaching / learning English either as a second or a foreign language, some differences appear accordingly. Ringbom (1987) distinguishes between second language and foreign language learning. He argues that in a second language acquisition context, the language is spoken in the immediate environment of the learner who has good opportunities to use the language for participation in natural communication situations.

In a foreign language situation, however, the language is not spoken in the immediate environment of the learner, although mass media may provide opportunities for practising the receptive skills. Unlike the second language condition, there is little or no chance for the learner to use the language in natural communication situations in a foreign language setting.

Who are bilinguals?

The stock of bilinguals includes those who have learned a second language or who have actually been raised in a bilingual environment where both languages are used. Romaine (1995) points out that a bilingual is anyone who possesses a minimal competence in one of the four language skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), in a language other than his/her mother tongue. This therefore includes a wide range of people and applies to many situations in bilinguals' lives. Levine (1990) suggests that the term 'bilingual learners' can be used to mean all those pupils who use one or more languages other than English in their ordinary lives in and outside school. Bilingual education is defined by Swain (1987) as the use of two languages as mediums of instruction at some stage in a student's educational career. These two languages thus are English and the student's mother tongue.

Bilingual Education Programs

The basic characteristics of the best bilingual education programs, as Krashen (1999) suggests, include English as a second language instruction, sheltered subject matter teaching, and instruction in the first language. In other words, non-English-speaking children initially receive core instruction in the primary language along with English as a second language instruction. Then as learners grow more proficient in English, they learn subjects using more contextualised language in classes taught in English. This way, they move from instructions in the mother tongue to a more proficient use of English.

Tucker (1999: 2) provides some common threads, which were identified in successful programs that aimed to provide students with multiple language proficiency and with access to academic context materials:
• Development of the mother tongue is encouraged to promote cognitive development and as a basis for learning the second language.
• Teachers are able to understand, speak and use with a high level of proficiency the language of instruction, whether it is their first or second language.
• Teachers are well trained, have cultural competence and subject matter knowledge, and continually upgrade their training.

Why bilingual approaches?

Researchers such as Nicholls and Hoadley-Maidment (1988: 82) assume that there are many practical, educational and political reasons for adopting a bilingual approach in the teaching of ESL, which include:
a) Valuing and building on the knowledge that learners already have and bring to the classroom: the cornerstone of good practice in adult education.
b) Raising language awareness. Learners already have some linguistic skills and knowledge; by thinking about their own and other languages (e.g. their history, structure, syntax, writing systems), a class will learn more about language and languages in general. This can speed up aspects of learning and increase learners' tolerance of one another's difficulties.
c) Using learners' first language improves the pace of learning – an important feature for adult learners, for whom time is always at a premium.
d) There is less likelihood of the lesson content being trivial, patronizing or childish where the contributions students can make in their own languages are recognized as significant and valued.
e) Enabling learners, no matter how limited their knowledge of English, to contribute to the lesson in a variety of ways, depending on their experience.


Bilingualism plays a significant role in bilinguals' educational lives. There are some positive points about the status of being a bilingual in the process of second language learning. Winsler and Lucinda (1994: 508) state, "Children who acquire two languages have access to a wide range of resources that are largely unavailable to monolingual English speakers". Gibbons (1991) presents the following positive points of bilingual programs:

a) They allow children to draw on their total language experience and so continue their conceptual development.
b) They facilitate the development of teaching basic concepts and make it easier to understand.
c) They allow teachers to evaluate their students' learning more thoroughly since students can draw on their skills.
d) They help to provide a social emotional environment, linking the learning process to the language of the home and family.

So, when schools provide children quality education in their primary language, they give them two things: knowledge and literacy. The knowledge learners get through their first language helps make the English they hear and read more comprehensible. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language, and therefore helps to develop and acquire it easily.

This is actually one face of the coin. The other face, however, shows oppositions to those bilingual programs. A common argument against bilingual education is in the observation that many people have succeeded without it. Krashen (1999) gives an example of a particular person, Rodriguez, who tells that he succeeded in school without a special program and acquired a very high level of English literacy. So the need for the mother tongue is lessened this way.

People argue as well that if students are deficient in the school language, henceforth English, then they need intensive instruction in that language. Cummins (1986) follows that attempting to remedy English language deficiencies through instruction in the first language in bilingual programs appears against the ideas of many policy makers and educators. They say that using the mediation of the native language to render input meaningful can make the students totally dependant on their mother tongue and thus prevent them from thinking in English.

There is also opposition based on the principles that since first language and second language proficiencies are separate, then content and skills learned through the first language cannot transfer to the second and vice versa. The public is also against bilingual education according to some survey results by (Krashen 1999). He explains that many parents are not committed to having the schools maintain the mother tongue if it is at the expense of gaining a sound education and the English language skills needed for obtaining jobs or pursuing higher education. He adds that publications appearing between 1984 and 1994, especially in magazine and newspaper articles, tended to be anti bilingual education, which as a result, influenced the public opinion.

Research studies, however reveal the idea that critics do not claim that bilingual education does not work; instead, they claim there is little evidence that it is superior to all-English programs. A research study, for instance shows that as learners progress through the grades their use of the first language decreases and their English proficiency increases as a result. In another case where Spanish was used as the medium of instruction and the language of writing, (Winster and Lucinda 1994), data indicate that a shift towards English did indeed appear, most learners who began the year writing in Spanish had switched to English by the end of the year.

The previous research findings, accordingly, prove the success of such bilingual programs and support them. But, this at the end depends on how these programs are managed, to what extent the mother tongue is used, and the amount of exposure to English students' get. People have different views and studies will not stop at a certain point. A lot more is being conducted in this area and purposes differ according to the specific cases and circumstances around them.

Code switching

Code switching is a key issue in bilingual education and in mother tongue use in second language learning. It is not something that is peculiar or unnatural. If the bilingual knows that the listener shares the same languages, code switching is likely to take place for reasons will be identified later in the discussion. Cook (1991: 63) defines the term code switching as "Going from one language to the other in mid speech when both speakers know the same two languages". Thus, in the classroom environment, when the teacher knows the language of the students, the classroom itself is often a code-switching situation. "Use of the first language is an important indication of the extent to which the class is communicative" (Cook 1991:7).

Martin Jones (2000), in her survey article of bilingual classroom interaction, examines classroom-based research studies in the area of code switching. She declares that there are ample examples in the research literature conducted in this topic particularly of teachers using different modes of switches for a variety of reasons. Among these reasons are the following:
• To signal the transition between preparing for a lesson and the start of the lesson.
• To specify a particular addressee.
• To distinguish 'doing a lesson' from talk about it.
• To change footing or make an aside.
• To distinguish questions from a written text from talk about them.
• To bring out the voices of different characters in a narrative.
• To distinguish classroom management utterances from talk related to the lesson content.

Faltis (1989:122) presents some justifications for switches within the area of classroom strategies on the basis of the following needs:
• For conceptual development in the mother tongue.
• To review a lesson previously taught.
• To capture attention of students who are distracted.
• For immediate praise or punishment.

According to a study by Jacobson (1983), a rational is presented for using code switching based upon four arguments: First it provides students with sufficient input in the two languages for them to derive grammatical and lexical information. Second, it enables students with differing relative language proficiencies to focus on learning the concepts being presented during content area instruction. Third, it provides a way of establishing equal prestige for both languages within the classroom setting, and then is likely to encourage a balanced distribution of the two languages. And fourth, it encourages the kind of language behaviour commonly used among bilinguals who are proficient in both languages, resulting in a closer connection between the school and the community. The study also gives evidence that the switches made by the teachers kept the students on task and thus contributed to the accumulation of academic learning time.

An example of a classroom situation where code switching is systematically observed is examined in a study by Zentella (1981). She focused specifically on the ways in which teachers and learners attended to each other's language choices when taking turns in their classroom conversations. The teachers' switches according to the study were clearly motivated by their concerns to facilitate comprehension. One of the teachers in the study puts it this way: 'Sometimes I have to be bouncing from one language to the other…. but that is the only way sometimes they will understand'. Table (1) below shows language choices in teacher-student exchanges in two primary classrooms (adapted from the same study, Zentella 1981: 119):

Conventions governing
 language choices

initiation language

reply language

evaluation language

1. Teacher and student:
“Speak what you are spoken to” or “Follow the leader”

English                Spanish

English  Spanish


2. Teacher: “Follow the child”




3. Teacher: “Include the child’s  choice and yours”




A remarkable notice from the table above indicates that even when teachers used the first language for their initiations; it is obvious that students sometimes do use English in their replies. This shows that code switching in such settings could happen from the first language to the target language as it happens the other way around. Results of a study undertaken to provide data relevant to the development of a model of bilingual speech production indicated that the occurrence of the language switches turned out to be relevant to the learners' proficiency in English, (Poulisse and Bongaerts 1994: 128). These results consequently support the previous notice and justify it as related to improvements in learners' abilities to produce English. All the previous studies, relatedly show the advantages of code switching in the teaching / learning process and its contribution to the successful acquisition of English.


As for bilingual education programs in general and code switching modes in the language classroom in particular, different opinions and attitudes emerge. Martin (1996) comments that code switching in the classroom is usually viewed in a negative way, not only by monolinguals, but also by bilinguals. And I think this is true. People believe that it hinders proficiency in English and interferes negatively in the process of acquisition. This even sometimes comes from teachers for whom code switching is an essential tool. They feel guilty for their actions of switching and admit their wishes for not doing so. Other survey results, however, show that people support this use and rarely look at it as a problem.


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Zainab Al Bulushy is a Senior Language Instructor at the Language Centre, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She has been teaching English since 1998. She holds a Master degree in English for Specific Purposes from University of Warwick, UK. She is interested in the areas of linguistics, students' needs and motivation

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