The Effects of Code-Switching on the Acquisition of Second Language Vocabulary

Subject: Linguistics
Pages: 8
Words: 2293
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: PhD

Introduction and literature review

Code-switching can be defined as the simultaneous use of several languages (Macaro, 2005, p 63). This phenomenon is frequently observed in multilingual communities. There is an ongoing debate among scholars and educators about its effects on the acquisition of a second language. Many scholars argue that the use of the mother tongue enables teachers to better explain the peculiarities of the foreign language (Alenezi, 2010); this argument is particularly relevant when we are speaking about vocabulary and grammar. In contrast, other educators believe that code-switching should be reduced to a minimum since it can lead to misunderstanding in a real-life situation. Furthermore, code-switching can grow into a habit, and it may significantly diminish the second language competence of a student. Therefore, this research will try to gain more insights into this phenomenon and explain how it affects learners. In particular, we are going to focus on those students whose native language is Arabic. The key objective is to determine how code-switching can affect their acquisition of English vocabulary.

This question has long come under the scrutiny of many researchers and their works can allow us to gain better insights into this question. For instance, in his work, Ernesto Macaro (2005) claims that code-switching is an inherent part of second language acquisition. He emphasizes the following benefits of this practice: 1) teacher’s ability to give complex procedural instructions; 2) mutual understanding between the teacher and students; 3) the instructor’s ability to better control the behavior of students (Macaro, 2005, p 69). Partly, this argument is supported by Mukul Saxena (2009) who believes that code-switching enables teachers to better achieve pedagogical goals, especially when he/she has to resolve conflicts in bilingual classes (p 167). The supporters of code-switching argue that a teacher of linguistically diverse students must be able to “understand across differences in language” to achieve good results (Zapata & Roach, 2011, p 310).

Additionally, Erensto Macaro stresses the fact that a teacher, who continuously avoids code-switching, has to substitute complex words and phrases that may be unclear to the learners. Furthermore, he/she may have to change the syntactical structure of his/her sentences (Macaro, 2005, p 79). On the whole, the scholar supports the idea that both teachers and learners should rely on the mother tongue to gain a better understanding of the foreign language. To some extent, the study conducted by Abdullah Aleneze is in line with Macaro’s arguments. This researcher focused primarily on the attitudes of both instructors and students toward code-switching. The majority of respondents viewed these bilingual lessons as a positive phenomenon that contributed to better learning. Nonetheless, one should not assume that educators regard code-switching only as a positive phenomenon, especially as far as second language acquisition is concerned. One of the reasons for the criticism is that code-switching can result in the unintentional insertion of foreign language lexemes and uncontrolled language transfer which means that a person will use words and phrases of both languages and this will diminish his/her language competence (Owen, 2002, p 183). The same thing can be observed in grammatical structures. In this case, we can speak about the emergence of the so-called Pidgin English or a language that comprises the elements of different languages, and English teachers throughout the world try to avoid this effect. One of the most common examples is the combination of English and Spanish utterances in speech; this linguistic behavior is often observed among bilingual students in the United States (Arias & Laksmanan, 2005, p 95). Certainly, such a phenomenon is rather unlikely to occur especially if we are speaking about a controlled environment like a classroom.

At this point, the impacts of code-switching on the acquisition of second language vocabulary remain relatively unexplored. Many studies examined primarily the attitudes toward the concurrent use of several languages. This is why it is important to determine whether language acquisition promotes the acquisition of English vocabulary among Arab students. Although it is impermissible to make any foregone conclusions and predict the results of the study, I would argue that code-switching in the classroom can significantly assist both instructors and students, since they will be able to explain and comprehend complex lexical units. This is the key assumption which I intend to test during the research.

Main aim and objectives

Therefore, the key purpose of this study is to understand how code-switching affects the learning of English language vocabulary among Arab university students. This research will be based on the premise that education is a two-sided process that relies on the active cooperation of students and teachers. So, it is possible to single out the following research questions.

  1. How does code-switching affect the teacher’s ability to explain the peculiarities of foreign language vocabulary? In particular, we need to know how his/her teaching strategies change due to code-switching and what benefits he/she receives by adopting this approach. Furthermore, we need to find out whether a teacher is able to receive these benefits by avoiding code-switching.
  2. The second question is how code-switching affects the student’s ability to understand and use the lexemes of the English language. It is also important for us to learn how often a student resorts to code-switching and how it assists him/her in the acquisition of a foreign language.
  3. In this study, we also need to examine the effects of code-switching on students’ language confidence. The problem is that many learners do not perform well because they believe that their foreign language skills are poor. In many cases, this perception of one’s language competence is due to the fact they are too accustomed to code-switching during foreign language lessons. This is one of the assumptions which have to be tested.
  4. Another issue that we are interested in is how often students use L1 (Arabic) lexemes while speaking or writing in English. In other words, we need to know whether code-switching causes the so-called language transfer or linguistic interference, which means that the student can use the lexemes and grammatical structures of his/her mother tongue while speaking English. This psycholinguistic phenomenon has been observed among many ESL students, and Arab learners are no exception (Abu-Rabia & Siegel, 2002). Many educators are very much concerned about code-switching because they believe that concurrent use of several languages during lessons makes a student too dependent on his/her mother tongue. Therefore, one has to determine whether there is an association between such code-switching and language transfer.

On the basis of these questions, we can single out dependent and independent variables. The independent will be the frequency of code-switching; in other words, how often students and educators combine Arabic and English during lessons. In turn, the independent variables will be: 1) teachers’ ability to explain lexical material; 2) students’ confidence in their language skills; 3) the linguistic competence of the learners. Our task will be to find out whether there is a significant connection between these variables.

Research methodology

Main sources of data

This research will derive data from two kinds of sources. First, we need to speak about the participants of this empirical study (teachers and students) who will be interviewed about various aspects of code-switching. Secondly, this research will draw information from other studies that have been conducted in this field. It is necessary to focus on those books and articles which examine code-switching among Arabic-English speakers. Yet, one should not disregard those books and articles which describe the positive and negative aspects of using several languages in the classroom.

Data collection procedures

The sample size for this study will be at least eighty participants. This number of respondents is compulsory for the validity of the study, itself. The participants will be selected on the basis of their English competence and study level. We are primarily interested in those learners who can express themselves in English more or less fluently but who still have to rely on the Arabic language in order to understand or explain complex lexical units. Preferably, these participants must be competent enough to pass some of standardized tests, measuring English language proficiency, for instance TOEFL; yet, this requirement is not compulsory. The key task is to ensure that these people are equally proficient in the foreign language otherwise the results can be invalidated. The sample will be divided into several groups: 1) the first group will include those students and teachers, who will regularly practicing code-switching during classes; 2) the second group will consist of those learners and instructors who do not use code-switching very often during the foreign language lessons and who rely primarily on the L2 knowledge. The main rationale for such segmentation of the sample is the necessity to see the difference between the effects of code-switching and not code-switching. In this way we will be able to see the positive and negative sides of this practice.

While conducting this research I will use both quantitative and qualitative research methods. First of all, I will need to interview the participants about their perceptions of code-switching. In particular, I will need to adopt such research method as semi-structured interview containing multiple choice and Likert scale questions. Both teachers and students will be asked questions about their attitude toward the concurrent use of two languages during classes, and especially at those moments when they have to explain and understand some English words, phrases or set expressions. They need to tell us how often they code-switch and for what kind of purposes. While evaluating the usefulness of code-switching they will have to answer Likert scale questions. The use of Likert scale is necessary because it will allow us to codify the results and present them in numerical form.

Another research method that is going to be used in the course of the study is observation. It is vital for us to know how often students rely on the Arabic language during classes. We need to pay special attention to those cases when they accidentally insert Arabic lexemes into the English language discourse. One of the key drawbacks of this research method is that it may make the respondents feel uncomfortable, especially if the students are aware of someone else’s presence in the classroom. This is the so-called observer’s effect. We can videotape the lessons in order to reduce this effect; however, in such scenario it will be necessary to ask each of the participants for his/her permission. Still, the use of this research method is essential for the study since we need to examine not only the attitudes toward code-switching but its effects on the linguistic competence of students.

Methods of data analysis

The data collected in the course of this research will be analyzed by statistical methods. I will rely upon such methods as T-tests and F-tests which are parts of ANNOVA (Analysis of Variance). These tests will allow us to see whether the changes in the independent variable (the use of code switching) produce any impacts on the dependent ones.

Timetable for the research

Ideally, this research has to be a longitudinal study which means that it has to be conducted within a long period of time, for instance a year. In this way, we will be manage to trace the long-term effects of code-switching on the linguistic competence. However, due to time and budget limitations we will have to shorten the length of the experiment. At this point, it is too early to set the exact schedule for this research, one can at least estimate the amount of time it will take to complete each of its stages. First, we will require at least fifty days in order to recruit the participants and gain the permission for the study. It will be necessary to explain to them that their personal information will not be disclosed to any one and their privacy will not be infringed upon. The actual experiment will last approximately seven days. During this time, we will need to interview the participants and videotape at least four lessons. Finally, the codification and analysis of results will last for approximately five days. So, in total this study can be carried out within 62 days. Yet, this is just a preliminary estimation.

Potential contributions of the research and dissemination strategy

This research can throw light on many of the questions which are of great interest for educators and psychologists. One of them is the role of the mother tongue in the acquisition of the second language. The most popular approach is based on the principle of emersion which means that a student must be placed in such an environment where he/she would be able to use only the second language. Nonetheless, language is a tool for learning and every person subconsciously relies on it. This research will enable us to understand whether the use of the Arabic language can help those people who study English. From practical standpoint, the result of this research can be used be used by instructors who tailor lessons and develop exercises. This knowledge will be particularly helpful for those teachers who are proficient in the English language but who are not native speakers. They need to know when and how often they can resort to code-switching. Thus, this study will be beneficial from both theoretical and practical perspectives. The results of this research can be published in various journals. First of all, we need to speak about those journals which are primarily dedicated to the study of communication and second language acquisition. Furthermore, it can be featured in the publications that specialize in psycholinguistic research. Finally, the results of the study can be disseminated by the educators who rely on code-switching in their daily practice. It is quite probable that some of them will utilize these results while developing vocabulary exercises or testing the acquisition of lexical units.


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