Understanding mixed code and classroom code-switching: Myths and realities

Chor Shing David LI

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review


Background: Cantonese-English mixed code is ubiquitous in Hong Kong society, and yet using mixed code is widely perceived as improper. This paper presents evidence of mixed code being socially constructed as bad language behavior. In the education domain, an EDB guideline bans mixed code in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to stick to Cantonese or English, depending on the school-based medium of instruction policy (i.e. EMI vs. CMI schools). Aims or focus of discussion: This paper analyzes the major reasons why mixed code is so difficult to avoid, both inside and outside the classroom. One important factor is the ‘medium-of-learning effect’. Empirical evidence will be presented to demonstrate students’ cognitive dependence on English terminologies as a direct result of Englishmedium education. The paper draws implications for classroom code-switching, which is pedagogically a valuable linguistic resource. Arguments / comments / suggestions: The EDB guideline banning mixed code in the classroom is too rigid. Code-switching has great potential for helping the bilingual teacher to achieve context-specific teaching and learning goals like clarifying difficult concepts and reinforcing students’ bilingual lexicon (e.g. melamine/三聚氰胺, financial tsunami/金融海嘯). For EMI teachers, switching to Cantonese helps maintain class discipline, build rapport and reduce social distance with students. The assumption or claim that mixed code leads to declining English or even Chinese standards is not informed by sound empirical evidence. Conclusion: Educated Chinese Hongkongers find it difficult to resist using some English in their informal interactions with others in Cantonese, resulting in mixed code. Instead of banning mixed code indiscriminately, a more proactive and productive approach will be to conduct empirical research with a view to (a) better understanding the circumstances under which classroom code-switching is necessary, (b) identifying pedagogically sound and productive code-switching practices, and (c) disseminating good code-switching practices through demonstrations, workshops, and teacher-training. Copyright © 2008 New Horizons in Education, Hong Kong Teachers' Association.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-87
JournalNew Horizons in Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2008


Li, D. C. S. (2008). Understanding mixed code and classroom code-switching: Myths and realities. New Horizons in Education, 56(3), 75-87.


  • Code-switching
  • Medium of instruction
  • Bilingual teaching strategies
  • Alt. title: 瞭解中英混用與課堂上轉換語碼:神話和現實


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