Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Verbal Strategy Families > Code Switching > Literature Note - Code Switching

What we have called code switching covers a very broad range of subjects: from the sociolinguistic aspects of code-switching, as discussed by Auer (2002), to far more grammatical aspects of changes in register and style. In the context of our competency model, we can differentiate the code switching that takes place when people shift languages or dialects from the subject of register, smaller alterations in linguistic code that are part of the socially defined means for fitting one's language to the social context.

Code switching in academic settings is particularly relevant for instruction of speakers who use dialects that are not considered to be standard English (Wheeler & Swords, 2006). It is possible for such speakers to be penalized for features of their dialect that are proscribed in standard English, and an effective approach will teach them what they need to know to use standard English where it is called for.

At this point it will be useful to take a closer look at register, in order to consider the role register plays in strategic, reflective aspects of literacy. Register is an important aspect of linguistic variation, and one that has strong connections to social aspects of the competency model such as point of view (and not just the verbal level of analysis), as we shall see below. Much of the recent work on register centers on the view that register is a multidimensional phenomenon (rather than a single scale such as formality vs. informality) and depends upon corpus analysis to identify dimensions of variation that can be identified as register dimensions (Biber, 1980, 1988, 1995; Biber & Conrad, 2001; Biber et al., 2004; Biber & Finegan, 1988, 1989, 1994).

In this approach, a variety of features (lexical and syntactic) are identified and extracted from a large text corpus. Factor analysis is performed to identify dimensions of covariation among features, which are then interpreted in terms of register by examining the types of documents in which they appear. Biber (1988), for instance, identifies five dimensions of variation for a wide variety of English text types:
  • Informational versus involved production.
  • Narrative versus nonnarrative concerns.
  • Elaborated versus situation-dependent reference.
  • Overt expression of persuasion.
  • Abstract versus nonabstract style

Each of these dimensions corresponds to bundles of lexical and syntactic features.

Informational style is characterized by more frequent use of nouns, adjectives, prepositional phrases, and long words, among other things. Involved production, on the other hand, is characterized by more frequent use of first and second person pronouns, stance markers, hedges, emphatic elements, contractions, and questions. The distinction is, roughly, the difference between a more formal, academic style versus a more oral style, with textbooks roughly at one end of the continuum and casual conversations on the other.

Narrative style is characterized by use of typical narrative control devices such as past tense and past perfect, use of third person pronouns, and speech act verbs. Non-narrative style is more likely to use present tense and attributive adjectives. Fiction would be at one end of the continuum; exposition, professional letters, broadcasts, and telephone conversations at the other end.

Elaborated style is characterized by various devices needed to provide context-independent descriptions of entities, such as use of relative phrase modifiers. Situation-dependent reference is characterized by the extensive use of time and place adverbials and other deictic elements. Overt expression of persuasion is characterized by heavy use of modals, conditional elements, and verbs with a strong persuasive element in their meaning, and is characteristic of such texts as professional letters and editorials. Finally, abstract style is characterized, among other things, by a heavy use of passives.

Various studies have examined how different genres make use of this kind of register resource and how students’ writing tends to change over time. Nesi (2009) reported the Biber factor scores of student texts found in the corpus of British Academic Writing (BAWE) and found a fairly uniform pattern for most of the academic genres present in the corpus: a strong bias toward informational, non-narrative style, without overt expression of persuasion, but with a strong tendency to be elaborated and abstract. Typically, students at lower levels of performance showed a more involved, oral, slightly more narrative style, with texts trending to display an academic register pattern more strongly as students progressed to higher levels in school.

Research undertaken at ETS reveals a somewhat similar pattern of register choices, though with a slightly different feature set and factor structure. In particular, Sheehan, Kostin, Futagi, and Sabatini (2007) examined a corpus of texts intended for readers ranging from early primary to high school and developed a factor analysis, with factors similar to but not identical to the Biber factor set. These factors were used to develop a predictive grade-level model for classifying student reading materials. An essentially similar factor structure was obtained by Deane and Quinlan (2009), who reanalyzed a corpus of student essays collected in a previous study at grades 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 (Attali & Powers, 2007) and obtained results similar to those reported by Nesi (2009): a decrease in features of oral style and an increase in written and academic register features from lower to higher grade levels.

An important point to note here is that there is a very strong connection between these dimensions of register variation and point of view. The involved pole of the first dimension of Biber’s analysis and the oral pole of the first dimension in Sheehan’s analysis capture many of the linguistic devices that explicitly encode the viewpoint of situation participants, and other aspects of point of view are captured at one pole of several other dimensions. Thus, narrative style is related to the use of tense to set perspective on event sequences; situation-dependent reference relies on explicit coding of point of view relative to the speech situation; and overt expression of persuasion relies on explicit coding of the interaction between author (speaker) and audience. Even with prototypically academic text, where most of these devices are avoided, there is still an implicit point of view encoded in a variety of ways, including use of metadiscourse, hedges, and similar devices that encode stance (Hyland, 2005). Thus, the choice of register is in significant part a choice of what sort of perspective, and what kind of perspective-controlling devices, will be used, although it is important to recognize that choice of register also carries other meanings. For instance, a more involved/conversational style is likely to signify greater personal involvement and engagement between author (speaker) and audience.

This interpretation has several implications for the strategic, reflective aspects of literacy skill. It implies
  • that there is a range of standard register choices, corresponding to a selection of standard strategies for negotiating the relationship between speaker/hearer or reader/author;
  • that these strategies are closely connected to choices about the perspective the reader or hearer is asked to adopt; and
  • that they are therefore equally closely connected to the speaker or author’s perceived voice.

Reflective reading will require the reader to understand explicitly how the author is setting up a specific perspective and an ability to consider alternative perspectives, alternative ways to frame the material that may not be that presupposed by the author’s register choices. Reflective writing will require the writer to consider explicitly what impact (in terms of perspective, voice, and general social fit with context) a choice of register will make. Both of these are connected to a class of reading and writing strategies generally lumped together under the heading of style. For a reader, a style may be accessible or difficult, requiring specific adaptations to read with understanding. For a writer, the style is one of the fundamental rhetorical choices, and one of considerable interest in literary studies (Simpson, 2004).

Attali, Y., & Powers, D. E. (2007). A developmental writing scale. Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Auer, P. (2002). Code-switching in conversation: Language, interaction, and identity. London, England: Routledge.

Biber, D. (1980). A typology of English texts. Language, 27, 3-43.

Biber, D. (1988). Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, D. (1995). Dimensions of register variation: A cross-linguistic comparison. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, D., & Conrad, S. (2001). Register variation: A corpus approach. In D. Schiffrin, D. Tannen, & H. E. Hamilton (Eds.), The handbook of discourse analysis (pp. 175-196). Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing.

Biber, D., Conrad, S., Reppen, R., Byrd, P., Helt, M., Clark, V.,… Urzua, A. (2004).Representing language use in the university: Analysis of the TOEFL 2000 spoken and written academic language corpus (ETS TOEFL Monograph Series No. MS-25). Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Biber, D., & Finegan, E. (1988). Adverbial and stance types in English. Discourse Processes, 11(1), 1-34.

Biber, D., & Finegan, E. (1989). Styles of stance in English: Lexical and grammatical marking of evidentiality and affect. Text, 9(1), 93-124.

Biber, D., & Finegan, E. (1994). Sociolinguistic perspectives on register. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Deane, P., & Quinlan, T. (2010). What automated analyses of corpora can tell us about students’ writing skills. Journal of Writing Research, 2(2), 151-177.

Hyland, K. (2005). Stance and engagement: A model of interaction in academic discourse. Discourse Studies, 7(2), 173-192.

Nesi, H. (2008, September). Multidimensional analysis of student writings across levels and disciplines. Paper presented at the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAAL) Conference, University of Swansea, Swansea, Wales, UK.

Sheehan, K., Kostin, I., Futagi, Y., & Sabatini, J. (2007, August). Reading level assessment for informational and literary texts. Paper presented at the 29th annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Nashville, TN.

Simpson, P. (2004). Stylistics: A resource book for students. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wheeler, R., & Swords, R. (2006). Code-switching: Teaching English in urban classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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