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Codeswitching in the classroom by Dr Breda Carty

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Sign language users become accustomed to changing the type of signing they use in various situations, often on a scale of ‘more English-like’ to ‘more Auslan-like’. This happens for several reasons – the needs of person they are signing with, the degree of formality of the situation, their ability in English and Auslan. The kind of signing that happens in these situations is usually referred to as ‘contact signing’ (Lucas & Valli, 1992). Codeswitching is the name given to the process of changing between different types of signing – it can be deliberate, but is often unconscious. Signers may sign in Auslan, or sometimes represent English by signing Auslan signs in English word order (Fischer, 1998). At times, signers may use some signs from Artificial Sign Systems (e.g., Signed English). They may also switch between different regional or national sign languages – at conferences, for example. Strategic incorporation of fingerspelling into signed communication can also be a way of codeswitching. As this is a widespread practice among experienced signers, codeswitching is potentially a useful educational tool as well.

Bilingual deaf education refers to teaching through Auslan and English. The English is included in its written form and – for many students – in its spoken form as well (Marschark, Tang & Knoors, 2014). Sign bilingualism is different in many ways from spoken language bilingualism, and one of the differences is that there is a well-worn pathway between the two languages. Johnston (2002) observes that “English-like signing is as natural as Auslan … one doesn’t need any specially invented system to be able to do it” (p.26).

Many of the early sign bilingual programs developed in the 1980s and 1990s urged that the two languages should be kept separate in the curriculum. This is what happens in most spoken language bilingual programs. However, more recent literature claims that code-switching can offer opportunities for teaching and reinforcing both target languages (e.g., Akamatsu, Stewart & Mayer, 2002; Andrews & Rusher, 2010). Codeswitching could also be a way of demonstrating to deaf children the cultural practices around using these languages. Johnston (2002) considers that educators have not been able to exploit the complex relationships between a signed language and the majority spoken language because of their general lack of linguistic knowledge.

Andrews and Rusher (2010) summarise a number of research studies into instructional strategies using codeswitching. One study reported on the targeted use of fingerspelling within signed story-reading, and its beneficial impact on English vocabulary acquisition. Another study described the improved reading comprehension of deaf students who received a signed summary of a text before reading it in English – they performed better than those (including hearing monolinguals) who read it in English alone. A third study analysed the effectiveness of the ‘preview-view-review’ technique, in which the preview and review sequences were conducted in ASL, on students’ comprehension of science texts. The fourth study gave examples of teachers’ use of code-switching in everyday teaching activities, as described in their written teaching logs. These everyday examples included comparing the grammars of signed and spoken languages.

Andrews and Rusher (2010) consider that the analysis and evaluation of codeswitching in teaching provides a promising contribution to sign bilingual educational methodology. They also suggest that it will help deaf students “bridge their two languages by creating semantic approximations and negotiating meaning” (p. 412).


Akamatsu, C. T., Stewart, D. A. & Mayer, C. (2002). Is it time to look beyond teachers’ signing behaviour? Sign Language Studies, 2 (3), 230-254.
Andrews, J. F., & Rusher, M. (2010). Code-switching techniques: Evidence-based instructional practices for the ASL/English bilingual classroom. American Annals of the Deaf, 155(4), 407-424.
Fischer, S. (1998). Critical periods for language acquisition: Consequences for deaf education. In. A. Weisel (Ed.), Issues unresolved: New perspectives on language and deaf education (pp. 9-26). Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Johnston, T. (2002). The representation of English using Auslan: Implications for deaf bilingualism and English literacy. Australian Journal of Education of the Deaf, 8, 23-37.
Lucas, C. & Valli, C. (1992). Language contact in the American Deaf community. New York: Academic Press.
Marschark, M., Tang, G. & Knoors, H. (Eds.) (2014). Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.