Miscommunication is a form of communication breakdown, and one way to address it is to use repair strategies—ways that speakers can address problems with listening, speaking, and ultimately understanding.

In my Tagalog class for advanced-level learners, one useful repair strategy is code-switching. It may not be as common as other strategies to avoid communication failure, but it’s definitely useful for world language learners. Code-switching also provides evidence of the ever-changing nature of language.

Three Code-Switching Strategies

1. Introduce the concept of code-switching. In discussing code-switching as a repair strategy, emphasize that it describes what occurs when speakers alternately use two or more languages during a conversation.

For instance, in my Tagalog class, I introduced the code-switching concept by discussing the existence of Taglish (a combination of Tagalog and English) in the Philippines. I also asked learners to watch a 5-minute video about the basic characteristics of Taglish, so that they’d have a better understanding of what it really means. I explained as much as I could so that everything would be clear about code-switching.

2. Provide concrete examples of how to use code-switching. As a repair strategy, code-switching is a bit unique, and learners need to understand this. The goal is to repair miscommunication caused by vocabulary limitations during the speaking process in the target language. To make it more concrete, here are two simple code-switching exercises that world language teachers can do with their learners. Learners replace words from the target language with words from the source language. In my Tagalog class, I asked learners to list the usual stuff they have in their fridge. One of them started naming three items in Tagalog, then shifted to English when she didn’t know what to call the other items in the target language. Notice in the example below that the learner made this choice to easily complete the sentence. Moreover, learners need to consider the categories of the words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) they’re replacing—making sure that the words from the source language relate to the sentence’s context:

“Mayroon akong mga itlog, tubig, manok, fish, cupcakes, at chocolates.” (“I have eggs, water, chicken, fish, cupcakes, and chocolates.”)

Another example is to code-switch using a full sentence. During one of our activities, I asked learners the Tagalog question, “Bakit ka masaya?” (“Why are you happy?”). For their answers, they used code-switching in two different ways. One of the learners shifted to English (from Tagalog) when he stated the reason why he was happy. The second one began his sentence in English, then shifted to Tagalog:

Learner 1: “Masaya ako kasi I saw my friend.” (“I am happy because I saw my friend.”) Learner 2: “I am happy because busog ako.” (“I am happy because I am full.”)

A good practice for world language teachers is to scaffold learning using templated sentences, such as those with blanks. Learners can just fill in the blanks with appropriate phrases from either the source or the target language.

3. Create learning opportunities that will better expose learners to code-switching. Exposure is the key for learners to become familiar with code-switching. Ask them to watch videos of native speakers who code-switch to sustain conversations and make the meaning easy to understand.

I let learners watch a YouTube video of a conversation between a Filipino broadcaster and a Filipina online gamer, highlighting the parts where Taglish was more prominent. I purposely chose this video because the speakers used code-switching to keep the conversation going and to express ideas more clearly. One good tip is to choose videos that are age-appropriate and really capture the learners’ attention. To engage the learners, I always choose video materials that feature people’s unique experiences.

Another activity is to have learners talk with native speakers, either offline or online. Considering the speaking proficiency of advanced-level learners, there are sure to be instances where they’ll use code-switching (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid communication breakdowns. A simple online conversation with learners who speak the target language can also provide opportunities for code-switching practice. The simplest and most realistic activity, though, is to practice in class.

Careful facilitation and guidance are crucial for using code-switching as a handy repair strategy for world language learners. Teachers need to remember, however, that introducing and teaching code-switching are linked to the learners’ reception, including their speaking proficiency levels. Above all, it’s time to look at code-switching as a useful language skill and a beneficial resource for world language learners—not as a weakness or a deficiency.

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