In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Code-switching and Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Code-Switching in Early Bilingualism: Debates on Language Differentiation
  • Code-Switching and Language Dominance in Children
  • Code-Switching and Children’s Grammatical Development and Proficiency
  • Comparison of Children’s Code-Switching with Adult Code-Switching
  • Code-Switching by Children in the Home
  • Code-Switching by Children in School and Beyond
  • Code-Switching in Bilingual Children with Language Impairment
  • Code-Switching and Cognitive Control in Children

Childhood Studies Code-switching and Children
Elizabeth Lanza, Li Wei
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0271


Code-switching is the use of elements from more than one language, dialect, or variety in a single utterance (intra-sentential code-switching) or across utterances in a conversation (inter-sentential code-switching). It is a characteristic behavior of bilinguals/multilinguals in multilingual contexts that has fascinated scholars across disciplines. There are three broad approaches to studying code-switching: (1) a sociolinguistic or ethnographic approach, which focuses on the social and cultural parameters that motivate or inhibit the use of more than one language in social interaction; (2) a psycholinguistic approach, which addresses the cognitive processes underlying the acquisition, production, and perception of using more than one language; and (3) a linguistic approach, which focuses on the contact between languages at different structural levels. Methodologies employed to study code-switching may vary considerably. Sociolinguistic or ethnographic approaches target the use of languages in their natural contexts while psycholinguistic approaches focus on more controlled situations for the collection of data for analysis, particularly in the laboratory. Research on code-switching in adults is quite extensive in relation to what is found for children. The role of code-switching in the child’s development of more than one language has received considerable attention since the 1990s. While language contact in young multilingual children’s development was originally construed by developmental psycholinguists as a sign of the child’s lack of language differentiation, a stage to be overcome, current work underscores the interplay between social, cognitive, and linguistic factors in language acquisition. In this vein, researchers investigate the multilingual child’s development of more than one language not only through what the child says, but also giving attention to the input the child receives and the experiences they have with each of their languages, and how this may impact the child’s development and use of the languages. Children are socialized into the language use norms of their communities, whether these communities are bilingual, multilingual, or even monolingual. The child learns to code-switch appropriately, or refrain from code-switching when deemed necessary, in the home, the school, and throughout society. Research has clearly shown that code-switching is indeed a resource for the multilingual child.

General Overview

What is considered code-switching has been debated across time and across theoretical issues. The terminology used in the field may indeed be a challenge for the uninitiated reader. It is important to carefully discern how authors define terms in the text: code-switching, language mixing, code mixing, language contact, language alternation, code-copying, and others. For example, while the term code-mixing has been used for what is otherwise referred to as intra-sentential code-switching, the very same term has also been applied by some developmental psycholinguists to describe the young language-acquiring child’s purported lack of differentiation between their languages. Baker 1980 assesses the burgeoning work on code-switching in Hispanic communities in the United States and attempts to untangle terminology. A classic volume on code-switching is Milroy and Muysken 1995. More recently, Ferguson 2021 provides a comprehensive overview of (adult) code-switching literature in light of multilingualism, also drawing on current related yet more specified notions of multilingual language use, such as heteroglossia, crossing, and translanguaging. In recent years, the term translanguaging has assumed a great deal of scholarly discourse space, with some mistaking it as a fashionable term intended to replace code-switching. However, translanguaging scholars come from very different fields, each having epistemological stances on what language is that are very different from the traditional “code view” of language. They regard the differently named languages as sociopolitical and ideological constructs rather than codes and see no evidence from the scientific literature of the existence of a switch in the human brain to manage the alternation between named languages. Li 2018 provides a succinct overview of the difference between the two concepts. A highly influential model of adult code-switching, also applied to children’s code-switching, was proposed by Myers-Scotton and updated in Myers-Scotton 2002. Gardner-Chloros 2009 provides an overview of different approaches to the study of code-switching, arguing for the necessity to integrate findings to understand code-switching. She includes a chapter on the acquisition of code-switching by children and L2 learners. Bullock and Toribio 2012 is a handbook on linguistic code-switching that comprises chapters on children’s code-switching. Cantone 2007 is a book-length case study of young bilingual children acquiring Italian and German in Germany that focuses on the linguistic analysis of the children’s code-switching. Meisel 2019 provides an overview of research highly relevant for understanding children’s code-switching. Otherwise, most of the relevant literature on code-switching and children is to be found in scientific journals and anthologies.

  • Baker, Opal. “Categories of Code-Switching in Hispanic Communities: Untangling the Terminology.” Sociolinguistic Working Paper Number 76. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1980.

    A classic article from the period during which extensive research was done on code-switching in Hispanic communities in the United States. As the title notes, the aim was to untangle the terminology as different researchers employed different terms for various categories, which leads to difficulty in comparing results across studies. An interest then was also to determine what was indeed “true” code-switches as opposed to borrowing.

  • Bullock, Barbara, and Almeida Jacqueline Toribio. The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-Switching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511576331

    This is a handbook volume on code-switching with a focus on grammatical contact, involving a wide range of language pairs and drawing on linguistic, social, and cognitive implications of code-switching. There are several chapters related to children’s code-switching.

  • Cantone, Katja. Code-Switching in Bilingual Children. Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-5784-7

    This singular volume on code-switching in bilingual children focuses on the grammatical aspects of intra-sentential switches, that is, mixing within an utterance, with data from five bilingual Italian/German children (age 1;8 to 5 years) growing up in Germany. The results indicate that mixing in young bilinguals is the same as code-switching in adults, and that it is only the grammars of the two languages that constrain code-switching.

  • Ferguson, Jenanne K. “Code-Switching and Multilingualism.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology. Edited by John L. Jackson Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    This online bibliography gives a comprehensive overview of sociolinguistically oriented studies of code-switching, primarily among adults, embedded in the wider topic of multilingualism. It addresses a variety of foundational concepts used in the relevant research, including multilingualism and identity, gender and multilingualism, multilingual socialization and education, multilingualism and globalization, and superdiversity.

  • Gardner-Chloros, Penelope. Code-Switching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511609787

    This volume explores how, when, and where code-switching occurs. It draws upon a wide range of discourse, both written and spoken, and argues for the necessity to investigate code-switching from a variety of approaches including sociolinguistic, psycholinguistic, grammatical, and development. Findings from each perspective can contribute to a better understanding of what it means to use two or more languages, dialects, or varieties in everyday life.

  • Li, Wei. “Translanguaging and Code-Switching: What’s the Difference?” In OUPblog (blog). New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    This blog post explains the difference between the two terms in a nontechnical language, with illustrations from multilingual and multi-semiotic signs. It serves as an entry to the extensive literature on code-switching and translanguaging and the very alternative theoretical approaches.

  • Meisel, Jürgen M. Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781316850329

    Although labeled as a guide for parents, this volume provides an overview of research on bilingual children that is highly relevant for understanding code-switching in children. The author treats, among other topics, cognitive aspects of bilingualism, what he refers to as mixing; interference and interaction of languages; language dominance; and benefits and advantages of child bilingualism.

  • Milroy, Lesley, and Pieter Muysken, eds. One Speaker, Two Languages: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    This now-classic volume of articles by leading scholars of the field explores code-switching in particular social and institutional contexts, bringing together research into the social, grammatical, and psycholinguistic issues raised by this unique form of speech behavior among bilinguals and multilinguals. The volume as a whole demonstrates that code-switching does not indicate a lack of competence on the part of the speaker, but results from complex language skills.

  • Myers-Scotton, Carol. Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198299530.001.0001

    This volume is a critical investigation of grammatical structures when bilingual speakers use their two or more languages in the same clause. Myers-Scotton’s Matrix Language Frame model had an important impact on research in intra-sentential code-switching. In this book, she extends her earlier analysis of code-switching under the Matrix Language Frame model and develops it further. She argues that different contact phenomena result from the same grammatical principles and processes.

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