Mixing Language Codes:  A Survey of University Students’ Language Behaviour

Anuradha Vashisth*
Dr. Keerty Goyal**


The amazingly large number of speakers who use its spread over most of the world for a wide range of purposes and as a medium of cultural manifestation such as science, technology and literature makes English the most sought after language in the world. No doubt, today students, especially from professional streams, are required to possess good communication and language skills in order to succeed, but the ultimate success lies in conveying one’s mind and thoughts easily and effectively. This paper attempts to explain why undergraduate students code-switch and code-mix a lot by looking at the various linguistics factors as well as various social and psychological factors that add to the pervasiveness of code-switching and code-mixing. The present study reveals that the occurrence of this communicative behaviour results from the purpose of being more receptive to others and thereby felicitating easy and effective communication within a group.


The fact of developing communicative competence in two or more languages provides individuals with opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings, hence shapes their personality and identity. Individuals who have learned two languages demonstrate an interesting phenomenon known as “code-switching” or “code-mixing” during the course of speech or writing. The growing use of English is making us code-mix most of the time. In India most individuals know at least two languages and tend to code-mix and code-switch. This is a widely observed language behaviour among students of colleges and universities. These bilingual speakers switch their languages with ease at different points in conversation but that switch is mostly due to their lack in English language competence and further to make communication easier.

In university classrooms and around campuses, code switching comes into use in both the teachers’ and the students’ discourses. Bilingual speakers alternate the codes for various reasons during conversation. This study proposes to identify and evaluate the factors that affect code switching in the university classroom among students. Primary data has been collected, analyzed and compared with related research for the purpose of reaching comparative conclusions about these factors. The research was conducted at Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology, located in Hisar, Haryana.

This paper explores the factors that determine code switching among non-native speakers of English in university level English classes.

Code-mixing and code-switching

Code is a language, a variety, or style of language. Code-switching is a term in linguistics (the scientific study of natural language) that refers to using more than one language or variety of languages in a conversation. Bilinguals have the ability to use elements of both languages when conversing with another bilingual. On the other hand, code-mixing is the use of two languages at the same time or rather the change of language at the same time.

Monolinguals are likely to be very critical of code-mixing. They may even use pejorative, derogatory terms to describe the perceived results of mixing two languages, e.g. ‘Hinglish’ (Hindi and English in North), ‘Punglish’ (Punjabi and English), virtually anywhere where the two languages may coincide. Perhaps because of this kind of criticism, many bilingual people come to be very self-conscious about their language change and try to avoid it in talking to strangers or on formal occasions. Such dismissal of the phenomenon demonstrates serious misunderstanding. Conversational code-mixing is not just the mixing of two languages brought about by laziness or ignorance, or some combination of these. Rather, it requires speakers to have a sophisticated knowledge of both languages and to be aware of community norms.

Indeed, code-mixing and code-switching should be seen as normal and powerful communicative features of informal bilingual interactions.

Factors that influence code switching

In socio-linguistic analysis, participants showed various responses regarding the factors of mixing codes while conversing with one another within a group. Many of them agreed with the options mentioned in the questionnaire. However, some of the participants responded to the factors of code mixing in different perspectives. Both views of code mixing factors are considered in this study. Factors affecting code mixing suggested in the questionnaire include:

  1. No similar words in English
  2. Did not know the English word
  3. To fill the gap in speaking
  4. Easier to speak in own language
  5. To avoid misunderstanding
  6. To make others more receptive to your ideas
  7. Other reasons

In each of the 55- minute class observations, several examples of cross coding occurred. Factors were noticed such as the surrounding circumstances in which coding happened, whether the coding was voluntary or spontaneous, whether the students were comfortable or uncomfortable. The frequency of switching was recorded on the basis of students’ interaction during the class time. In the interview students were asked: “why did you switch the codes in class?” The majority of the participants reported that their ideas are better received when conveyed by mixing two languages. Many of them responded that the class was boring and code switching made it more interesting. The fact that every one of the students, belonging to different districts and states, spoke with accents created a degree of non intelligibility and made them laugh at one another. One student said, “I am from Delhi, convent educated so I speak English but my Haryanvi friend does not understand me because of my accent. I also do not understand Haryanvi spoken with an accent.” In individual interviews with bilingual students, it was observed that one factor of code switching was to maintain privacy. Participants agreed that they switch the code in the classroom so that others would not understand the matter they are conveying with the same dialect or friends’ mother tongue.

Data analysis indicated that one of the most influential factors was ease of expression. 22% of the participants responded that it is easier to speak in their own language than to speak in English. Interestingly, 10% said that the reason they code switched was to avoid misunderstanding when they did not know the English equivalent. Obviously, students are not as competent in speaking English as in their native tongue. Those participants whose second language competence is less always have difficulty in finding equivalences of L1 and L2. In this case, the student makes use of the native equivalent of a certain lexical item and therefore code switches to his or her native tongue. This factor is mostly noticed among students who are still acquiring a second language. This process may be correlated with the deficiency in linguistic competence in speaking the newer target language. In this way equivalence seeking factor gives the student the opportunity to continue communication by bridging the gaps resulting from foreign language incompetence. During conversations off the class, the students filled in the stopgaps using their native tongue. The lack of fluency in the target language results in code switching situations in order to avoid gaps in communication. 17% of the participants listed ‘to fill a gap’ as a reason for their code switching. Another factor in students’ code switching, is ‘to add emphasis’ which is considered very important in linguistic study. The reason for this specific case of language alternation may be two-folds: first, the student may not have transferred the meaning exactly in the target language. Second, the student may think that it is more appropriate to code switch in order for the message to be clearly understood. Majority of the subjects responded that this kind of code switching was used to make their speech appear stylish or to ‘add emphasis’ in the foreign language so that others would notice them and be impressed.

The last question of the questionnaire gave participants room to give individual responses. A participant mentioned ‘seeing celebrities mix and switch two languages is the main factor in my code-switching’. This factor is an example of the use of code switching for conflict control. Many students switch the code intentionally simply to avoid a misunderstanding. The underlying factors for using this type of code mixing and switching may vary according to students’ needs, locations, setting, intentions or purposes.

Nevertheless, all these factors seem, in one way or another, influential in second language acquisition in classroom setting. Code switching is used in language classrooms because of an inability of expression and it provides continuity in speech rather than interference in the flow of linguistic expression. In this respect code switching can be seen as a supporting element in communication of information and in social interaction. Thus it enhances communication and is used as a tool for transference of meaning.

The study revealed that the factors that influenced code-mixing were

Lack of similar words in English: 06%
Did not know the English word: 16%
To fill a gap: 17%
Easier to speak: 22%
To avoid misunderstanding: 10%
To make others more receptive to your ideas: 26%
Other reasons: 03%

Conclusions and implications

The findings from this study revealed that the primary factor of code switching in English language classroom is to make others more receptive to ideas. Other noted factors were: to ease the process of communication;  to avoid misunderstanding; to share information; being unfamiliar with similar words in English; to put emphasis on being stylist or to be thought clever. Class observation, personal teaching experience and interviewing the participants have led to the conclusion that code mixing and switching is a natural phenomenon among bilingual students. Participants agree that they mix and switch codes for various reasons. It is observed that in many cases, code switching has been a useful tool in language learning classroom; however, in certain cases, it can be more disturbing and unwanted. In their teaching philosophy, language instructors should be aware that codes emerge from bilingual interaction and they are very useful for conveying the message of the lesson if correctly used in the discourse. Another implication of code switching is to serve better and provide clarification in English when a word or phrase is not known. The code exchange occurrences are welcomed in the class and may increase English competence if the frequency is not excessive. In short, code mixing and switching can be a useful strategy in classroom interaction if the aim is to make the meaning clear and to transfer the information in an easy and effective way.


  • Baker, C. (2000). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Third Edition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Chan, B. (2003). Conversational code switching and relevance theory. International Pragmatic Association Journal, 12 (3), 34-8.
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  • Gumperz, J. (Ed.) (1982). Language and social identity. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Kachru, B. (1978). Code-mixing as a communicative strategy in India. In J. Alatis (ed.). International dimension of bilingual education. pp. 25-52. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

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