Multilingual Code-Switching


The purpose of this critical writing assignment will be to review Virginia Unamuno’s journal article on the multilingual switch in peer classroom interactions. Unamuno mainly focuses on the aspect of code-switching from conversation analysis and sociolinguistic perspectives during her examination of the various interactions that take place between 10 to 12 year old language learners who are immigrants. Unamuno focuses her study on immigrant students from state primary schools in Barcelona where the official languages used in teaching these students are Catalan and Spanish. According to Unamuno, English within these schools is taught as a foreign language meaning that it is not viewed as a second language.

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In this research article, the author seeks to examine the various transcripts of recorded interactions between the students so as to determine the role of code-switching between Catalan and Spanish languages within the classroom contexts. The author of the article also seeks to determine how language vacillations or code switching tackles the realistic matters that are connected to the organization and achievement of allocated pair activities. This critical review will therefore offer a summary of Unamuno’s article as well as relate her work with that of other researchers who have conducted studies in the field of multilingual code-switch in peer classroom interactions

Summary of the Article

Unamuno begins her article by first defining the meaning of code-switching which according to authors such as Gumperz and Hymes refers to the use of more than one language during conversations or instructional activities. Unamuno notes that code-switching is an activity that takes place on a daily basis around the world as people of diverse ethnic backgrounds engage in code switching so that they can be able to understand each other better. Unamuno refers to the works of Gumperz and Hernandez-Chavez 1971, Blom and Gumperz 1972, Auer 1984, Gumperz and Hymes 1972 when describing the growth of code switching activities in daily conversations as well as in ethnographic linguistics and interactional sociolinguistics. The author further notes that while the mentioned researchers chose to focus their attention on code switching activities in adult conversations that took place in informal settings; the study of language switching has continued to grow considerably to include conversations that take place between young children of a bilingual background within formal settings as well as in second and foreign language classrooms (Reyes, 2004).

According to Unamuno (2008), several authors such as Ludi and Py have pointed out that code-switching within classroom settings represents the different strategies that are used in various communication settings such as the bilingual settings, exolingual settings where the participants of the conversation have uneven language proficiency and multilingual conversational settings. Unamuno highlights the fact that most studies such as those conducted by Adendorf (1993) and Pennington (1995) on code-switching within the bilingual classroom context have mostly focused on the conversations that take place between the teachers and the learners without focusing on the conversations that take place between peers within the exolingual and bilingual school contexts.

Unamuno also points out that most of the available literature on code-switching between classroom peers is mostly based on information that has been gathered from bilingual populations that share the common goal of engaging in interactions so as to develop competency in two or more languages (Reyes, 2004). The author bases her study on the previous research that has been conducted on code switching between peer conversations where she seeks to examine the interactions that take place between primary-level students who are from different language backgrounds and are currently being taught in Catalan or Spanish languages. Unamuno’s study goes beyond the use of both languages as either native languages or foreign languages and focuses on the multilingual patterns of the two languages and their use within the classroom setting. The author of the article has therefore adopted a conversational analysis approach where she studies the multilingual switches that occur between peer students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

With regards to code switching in classrooms, Unamuno notes that code-switching has been conceptualized into a resource that can be used by many learners in their knowledge acquisition activities as well as their use of new language knowledge. Unamuno adopts a detailed analysis of the various practical activities that are used by many bilingual students where the conversations that take place between these students are exploited to gain a difference between the native language and the foreign language. The detailed analysis conducted by the author delves into the work of Auer (1984, cited by Unamuno, 2008) where she examines the role played by one language in the phrases, pronunciations and grammar used in another language.

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Auer offers a differentiation between the concepts of participant-related and discourse-related code switching where participant related code-switching refers to the incompetency that the speaker demonstrates in properly speaking a particular language. It also refers to a process of language acquisition where people fall back to the language they have a stronger command of so as to avoid any pronunciation or grammatical mistakes that might be occur when communicating in a foreign or second language. Participant related code-switching allows users to economically use a given language based on institutional constraints as well as attitudinal reasons which might make it difficult for the user to effectively use the foreign language. This form of code switching also allows speakers to choose their preferred language with the main aim of facilitating the easy comprehension of the language as well as fostering understandable interaction between various bilingual speakers (Unamuno, 2008).

Unamuno describes discourse related code switching as the speaker’s ability to construct interactive activities that will enable them engage in proficient language communications. It refers to how various forms of interaction have been organized so that they can be able to contribute to meaningful interactions and conversations. Code switching under this form is used to indicate the commutation and interactional parameters that take place in conversations under discourse related code-switching. The most commonly used form of code switching within classroom interactions is the participant-related code-switching because students are motivated by their lack of understanding of the foreign language and the willingness of the teacher to provide instruction during the language instruction exercise (Liebscher & Dailey-O’Cain, 2005). Unamuno however notes that some instances of discourse-related code-switching are also used within a multilingual classroom setting.

The next section of the article focuses on conducting a study on primary school children who are taught with both Catalan and Spanish languages. The author uses eight students in her study so as to determine their level of peer multilingual communication during orally paired activities. The selection of the children involved pairing one locally born child with a foreign or immigrant child. The locally born children used Spanish or Catalan in their communication activities at home while the foreign born children spoke in their mother tongue language (Moroccan, Indian, Pakistani and Phillipino). The author was able to collect data over a span of three days during the children’s regular language lessons which involved instruction through the use of Spanish, Catalan and English languages. The author used recorded transcripts so that she could analyze the recorded conversations that took place within the classrooms during paired oral activities between the eight respondents.

The data analysis of the collected information revealed that the eight students used code-switching during the Catalan language tasks so that they could develop useful boundaries for the discursive and practical activities of their language-learning exercises. The author was able to determine from the study that students engaged in code-switching activities so that they could be able to manage the assigned activities based on the instructor’s guidelines. Code switching for both the native speaking children and the foreign born students served the purpose of planning and structuring discourses during paired oral activities. Unamuno’s summary of the paired code switching tasks revealed that the children used two languages in a sequential manner especially when performing their Catalan-learning tasks.

The results of Unamuno’s study revealed that code-switching was mostly used to indicate the opening sequences where the language-learning task became temporarily suspended. The assigned activities by the instructor were limited by the task related utterances of the students where the regulation of the code-switching exercise was done with the usual language used by most of the students during their interactions. Unamuno’s study also revealed that code-switching in the English language-learning tasks occurred at both a usual and frequent pace. This was a surprising observation given that most of the respondents did not have a fluent command of the English language. Unamuno observed that the students during the paired oral activities had to revert to other languages (their native languages or Catalan) so that they could be able to accomplish their class assigned tasks. Her analysis of the paired assigned speaking tasks revealed two main issues with the first being that the distribution of code-switching data challenged the rigid correspondence that existed between the status of a given language and the function of code-switching during interactive tasks.

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Based on Auer’s (1998) argument, code-switching that was conducted as a local practice indicated the extensive and collective practices that would be used to describe the wider context of conversational structures in bilingual settings. With relation to children, code-switching occurred successfully in children who were engaged in observational activities before they were required to re-create their linguistic practices with their peers and caregivers. The author’s analysis revealed that code-switching was a common practice among children who had been educated in Catalonia for most of their life and also children who had entered the educational system at a later stage.

Critical Reflections

Unamuno’s study on the multilingual code-switching activities within the peer classroom interactions of students who spoke Spanish, Catalan, English and their native languages was insightful as well as extensive. The author was able to capture the various levels of code switching that took place as the selected students engaged in orally paired class assignments. Her use of recorded transcripts to be able to determine the amount of code-switching that took place during the paired oral exercises provided detailed results of how the various students within the class were able to engage in code-switching without necessarily deviating from their assigned tasks. The author has also been able to demonstrate how young children intertwine the linguistic resources available to them so that they can be able to perform certain classroom tasks that involve paired oral commitments.

The article has also shown the interactions that children who have a command of more than one language have with their peers where code-switching has played an important role in allowing them to participate in multilingual interactive practices. Unamuno’s study has also highlighted the need to decentralize competence acquisition so that it can be able to focus on the acquisition of multilingual interactions. Apart from this, the author has offered a re-examination of code-switching amongst various learners in both primary and secondary schools where code-switching enables students to develop their plurilingual competences. The author’s examination of the code-switching transcripts offers a certain degree of competency that exists in the different languages used by the students in their paired oral activities.

In my view, Unamuno’s study contributes significantly to the already existing literature on multilingual code-switching given that it demonstrates the mobility of resources used during the code-switching exercises as well as the way in which learners articulate and deploy linguistic resources when carrying out various classroom tasks. Her study is also important because it offers a suitable example of how various linguistic skills are used to define plurilingual contexts when it comes to code switching. Unamuno’s research has paved the way for the examination of plurilingual competences where her research on how the immigrant children in the primary school have been able to merge their existing linguistic skills with those that are used in the school has enabled them to acquire a new bilingual context.


Adendorf, R., (1993). Code switching among Zulu speaking teachers and their pupils: its functions and implications for teacher education. Language and Education. 7:141-162.

Auer, P., (1998). Code-switching in conversation, language, interaction and identity. London: Routledge Publishers.

Liebscher, L., & Dailey-O’Cain, J., (2005). Learner code-switching in the content-based foreign language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89:234-247.

Pennington, M., (1995). Pattern and variation in use of two languages in the Hong Kong secondary English class. RELC Journal, 26(2):80-105.

Reyes, I., (2004). Functions of code switching in schoolchildren’s conversations. Bilingual Research Journal, 28(1): 77-98.

Unamuno, V., (2008). Multilingual switch in peer classroom interaction. Linguistics and Education, 19: 1-19.

Multilingual Code-Switching
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