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Code-switching as a marker of linguistic competence in bilingual children*

  • W. QUIN YOW (a1), JESSICA S. H. TAN (a1) and SUZANNE FLYNN (a2)

Code-switching is a common phenomenon that bilinguals engage in, including bilingual children. While many researchers have analyzed code-switching behaviors to better understand more about the language processes in bilingual children, few have examined how code-switching behavior affects a child's linguistic competence. This study thus sought to examine the relationship between code-switching and linguistic competency in bilingual children. Fifty-five English–Mandarin bilingual children aged 5 to 6 years were observed during classroom activities over five days (three hours each day). A number of different word roots and mean length of utterance for both languages, and a number of code-switched utterances for each child, were computed. English receptive vocabulary scores were also obtained. Additionally, teachers rated children's English and Mandarin language competencies approximately six months later. Correlational and hierarchical regression analyses support the argument that code-switching does not indicate linguistic incompetence. Instead, bilingual children's code-switching strongly suggests that it is a marker of linguistic competence.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: W. Quin Yow, Singapore University of Technology and Design, 8 Somapah Road, Singapore 487372
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Supplementary material can be found online at


We are grateful to the children and parents who participated in the study and to the teachers and staff of Creative O Preschoolers’ Bay, and Red SchoolHouse. We thank Ferninda Patrycia, Xiaoqian Li, Wanyu Hung, Yvonne Yong, Wei Xing Toh, Lu Xing, Qi Xuan Yap, Tony Zhao Ming Lim, and Yuxin Lou for their help in this study. The corpus from this study is published in CHILDES/Biling/Singapore. Portions of this work were previously presented at the BUCLD 39 (2014) and in Yow, Patrycia, and Flynn (2016). This research was supported by the SUTD SRG grant (SRG HASS 2011 011) and the SUTD-MIT IDC grant (IDG31100106 and IDD41100104) awarded to the first author.

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