Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English

Volume 20 – Corpus Approaches into World Englishes and Language Contrasts

Article Contents

3.2.2 Functions of foreign elements in EFL students’ term papers

Foreign elements in EFL students’ term papers – communicative strategy or display of multilingual competence?

Antorlina Mandal & Leonie Wiemeyer
English-Speaking Cultures, University of Bremen


The present study explores the use of foreign elements in linguistic research papers written by L1 German EFL learners from the Corpus of Academic Learner English (CALE; Callies & Zaytseva 2013). By definition, learner corpora contain texts produced by multilinguals. As a result, learner texts are likely to contain elements from other languages (Callies & Wiemeyer 2017). Research into codeswitching has shown that even advanced learners resort to their mother tongue for bridging lexical gaps and for self-repair (Liebscher & Dailey-O’Cain 2005). Several studies analysing interviews from the LINDSEI (Gilquin et al. 2010; Nacey & Graedler 2013; De Cock 2015a, 2015b) established that recourse to the L1 is a typical communication strategy. Moreover, lexical gap-filling strategies are also found in L2 writing (Agustín Llach 2010). However, the specialised nature of academic texts is likely to bring about different multilingual practices. Thus far there is no corpus-linguistic evidence of learners’ use of foreign elements in their academic writing. This research gap is addressed in the present contribution. It was found that the majority of foreign elements were individual words and phrases, usually from the writers’ L1 German. The learner texts in the CALE, like those in the LINDSEI, also contained cultural bridges, though they were generally a minor phenomenon. Unlike in spoken language, which was the focus of codeswitching in learner corpus research so far, foreign elements were not employed to fill lexical gaps. Instead, in accordance with the specialised nature of the texts, learners used discipline-specific terminology, examples, and illustrations from languages other than English. They exploited their multilingual skills to compare linguistic phenomena in their L1 German and other L2s. The findings show that EFL academic writers’ use of foreign elements at advanced levels of proficiency is not a communicative strategy, but fulfils academic goals.


Codeswitching denotes a linguistic phenomenon occurring in the speech of bi/multilingual speakers. It entails alternating between (at least) two languages within one segment of discourse. Speakers achieve this through recourse to their various linguistic resources, including their first language (L1), by inserting foreign elements in the form of single words or larger segments of discourse in spoken and written language. Codeswitching occurs to fill lexical gaps, to express one’s identity, or to achieve particular discourse aims such as topic shifts. It is also used for self-repair and fulfils various functions, for instance referential, directive, expressive, phatic, and metalinguistic functions (see Bullock & Toribio 2009: 1–2).

Codeswitching is a typical phenomenon in multilingual communities and is also encountered in foreign language contexts. A discrepancy between learners’ communicative needs and their lexical competence in a target language (TL) can lead to “different mechanisms to cover that lexical gap and compensate for the breakdown” (see Agustín Llach 2010: 529). These mechanisms can be understood as communication or compensatory strategies, which are not random but rather “systematic language phenomena whose main function is to handle difficulties or breakdowns in communication” (Dörnyei & Scott 1997). According to Agustín Llach (2010: 529), it is important to note that these strategies have a lexical character given the significance of lexical knowledge for successful communication.

In their taxonomy of communication strategies based on pre-existing classification systems, Nacey and Graedler (2013) make a basic distinction of functional strategies into reduction and achievement strategies. The former includes reducing the message due to difficulties through message abandonment and topic avoidance. The latter entails maintaining the original communicative goal in spite of interruptions and includes cooperative strategies, such as asking for assistance, and compensation strategies, i.e. autonomous problem-solving and maintenance of communicative goals, which are further subdivided into retrieval, L1-based or L2-based compensation strategies. The authors regard codeswitching as an achievement strategy which is commonly applied in order to make up for “linguistic deficiencies by extending or manipulating the available language system” (Dörnyei & Scott 1997: 195). In the study, codeswitching is further understood as the most common L1-based compensatory strategy, which, however, is only effective when interlocutors share the L1. 

Previous research into codeswitching in L2 learner writing shows that L2 writers employ various L1-based strategies to solve mostly lexical problems (see Dörnyei & Scott 1997; Manchón et al. 2007a, 2007b; Nacey & Graedler 2013). Codeswitching to the L1 is utilised as one such strategy to insert suitable words or phrases, or to assess and verify lexical choices (see Callies & Díez Bedmar 2018). It should be stressed that this behaviour is found among writers of all proficiency levels (Manchón et al. 2007b). Even advanced learners may, at times, resort to their mother tongue in order to bridge lexical gaps or for self-repair.

However, it is reasonable to assume that codeswitching can be more than a communicative strategy that is utilised to compensate for lexical gaps. Considering, for instance, the presence of foreign elements in untimed written tasks prepared by L2 learners with access to dictionaries and thus the opportunity to make up for any possible lexical gaps, the question arises which strategy may be behind codeswitching in such cases. As regards codeswitching in written language, particularly in the academic context, it seems reasonable to assume that foreign elements are also used intentionally and strategically to serve academic goals.

The present study explores foreign elements in academic texts of different genres produced by EFL learners in the context of linguistic assignments taken from the Corpus of Academic Learner English (CALE; Callies & Zaytseva 2013). In order to investigate foreign elements and strategies of insertion in L2 academic writing, a qualitative analysis of the EFL writers’ term papers was conducted. In Section 2, the present contribution will provide an overview of previous studies in learner corpus research focussing on codeswitching, reviewing the gap in research motivating the present study. The study data and method as well as results are presented in Section 3, followed by discussion in Section 4 and concluding remarks in Section 5.


Previous studies of codeswitching in L2 writing (see Dörnyei & Scott 1997; Manchón et al. 2007a, 2007b; Nacey & Graedler 2013) show that it is a typical feature of learner texts. Foreign elements are inserted in various forms, serve different purposes and are influenced by different learner- and task-related variables (see Callies & Díez Bedmar 2018). Codeswitching is utilised by L2 writers at all stages, i.e. planning, writing and revising. Moreover, it seems to serve as control mechanism for the entire writing process.

Most studies into codeswitching and foreign elements in learner corpora have focused on oral data. Nacey & Graedler (2013) based their study on spoken data in the form of interviews taken from the LINDSEI (Gilquin et al. 2010). Focussing on the Norwegian component of the LINDSEI, they found recourse to the L1 as a typical communication strategy among the informants and interviewers. Nevertheless, most of the applied achievement strategies were L2-based, in this case English, and included restructuring or paraphrasing, indicating the advanced level of proficiency of the study informants. The most prominent L1-based achievement strategy found was codeswitching, i.e. 78% out of all L1-based compensation strategies (N=49, 13.5% of all achievement strategies). The authors stress the fact that codeswitching contributed “positively to fluency, rather than disrupting communication” (Nacey & Graedler 2013: 345). Other compensatory strategies included foreignising, i.e. L1 utterances following grammatical rules of the target language, and calques, i.e. direct loan-translations from the L1. It should be mentioned here that the interviewed learners had the option to codeswitch to avoid breakdowns in communication in cases of lexical gaps or lacking equivalent culture-specific terms in their second language as the interviewers were native speakers of English but were also competent in Norwegian, the informants’ first language. The authors attribute the high frequency of codeswitching to this fact.

De Cock (2015a, 2015b) conducted a contrastive study also based on the LINDSEI but focussing on five other EFL learner subcorpora including speakers of various L1s, namely Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, and French. Like Nacey & Graedler, De Cock found recourse to the L1 in the speech of both the informants and the interviewers. Codeswitching occurred in the form of cultural bridges, e.g. when place names were known to both parties. Other instances included foreign pragmatic markers, for example Spanish bueno and German ja. The author assumed pragmatic markers to be uttered unconsciously and hence regarded these instances as unintentional codeswitching. Furthermore, De Cock (2015a, 2015b) also observed lexical bridges, which were accompanied by pauses and, at times, informants’ comments on the lexical gap initiating this compensatory communicative strategy. Hence, these instances, as opposed to the aforementioned pragmatic markers, can be regarded as conscious choices to codeswitch in order to avoid a breakdown in communication. Foreign elements were also found in direct speech reporting. However, it should be mentioned here that interviewers in the LINDSEI subcorpora either shared the learners’ L1 or were at least proficient enough in the learners’ L1 in order to render the insertion of foreign elements in the given context a fluency device rather than halting or impairing communication as both parties were aware of this situation and exploited all possible codes, i.e. L2 and L1s.

De Cock (2015a, 2015b), following Nacey & Graedler (2013), highlights this particular fluency feature of codeswitching, which is likely to be restricted to interactions between interlocutors sharing the language from which a foreign element is temporarily borrowed, i.e. the source language of the foreign element. In a 2017 study, De Cock revisits this issue and other aspects of the 2015 study and points to the fact that frequency and distribution of foreign elements differ significantly across the analysed subcorpora. Most instances of codeswitching occur in the LINDSEI_French and LINDSEI_German.

Agustín Llach’s 2010 study is one of the few studies focussing on foreign elements in written  texts by EFL learners of English. Her longitudinal study was based on timed informal letters written by learners of English with Spanish as L1. Data were collected for the first time when the informants were enrolled in the 4th grade of primary education and again four years later, i.e. when the same informants were in 8th grade. Agustín Llach found lexical gap filling strategies similar to those observed in spoken language, for instance borrowings to avoid breakdowns in communication and to compensate for lexical gaps. The results also suggest that beginners tend to resort to their L1, while with increasing proficiency the same learners employ strategies which rely on the target language, e.g. circumlocution, a conscious L2-based lexical compensatory strategy which entails filling the lexical gap by circumscribing the originally intended message in the L2.

Another, more recent and ongoing quasi-longitudinal study by Callies and Díez Bedmar (2018) analysed codeswitching by L1 German and Spanish beginning to intermediate EFL learners in non-academic contexts. Data were taken from the International Corpus of Crosslinguistic Interlanguage (ICCI, Tono & Díez Bedmar 2014) which includes written data in the form of short descriptive / argumentative writing tasks produced by beginning and intermediate-level learners from several different countries (e.g. China, Japan, Taiwan, Poland, Spain etc.). First findings showed that most codeswitches were nouns which were uttered across all grades and that codeswitching was used as a strategic means in communication to exploit multilingual competence in order to achieve communicative goals and to solve lexical problems. Moreover, they also observed a decreasing use of foreign elements with increasing competence in English, confirming the trend observed in Agustín Llach (2010).

In LCR, the phenomenon codeswitching has mainly been studied with regards to its occurrence in spoken language. As outlined above, few studies have been dedicated to the use of foreign elements in written texts. However, codeswitching in written language has been studied more extensively in the field of World Englishes, for instance by Rahim and Haroon (2003) who conducted a corpus-based study analysing foreign elements, i.e. Malay terms, in spoken and written English texts included in ICE Malaysia. The written component of this subcorpus of the International Corpus of English as most available ICE subcorpora included press texts, non-academic writing and student essays. The results of Rahim & Haroon’s study were not further differentiated according to text type. In general, however, the authors found instances of codeswitching displaying an intentional use of meaning-constructing L1 foreign elements going beyond mere compensatory strategies as found in the studies in learner corpus research so far. The instances of codeswitching in student essays only seemed to include references to or quotes from literary texts by local authors (Rahim & Haroon 2003: 163), which means that these cases of codeswitching were not novel codeswitches performed by the learners. The authors also discuss the linguistic motivation of codeswitching and come to the conclusion that in the cases where an English term was deemed not sufficient and lacking particular informative value to convey the intended and desired meaning, speakers turned to the Malay term (see Rahim & Haroon 2003: 172). Similar trends could be observed in previous studies on World Englishes, focussing on non-academic text types, i.e. mainly texts produced by journalists (see Yau 1993; Wong 1994; McClure 1998). Such observations suggest that similar uses of foreign elements may be observable in advanced learners’ academic texts.

The above review of previous studies in LCR focusing on codeswitching shows that the emphasis so far has been placed on the analysis of spoken language. Written language, particularly academic EFL writing, has so far not been the focus of investigation. In addition to that, it should be mentioned that the insertion of a foreign element into (timed) written assignments in a traditional EFL classroom seems to evoke the impression of an error, exemplifying lacking proficiency in the target language. Agustín Llach’s choice of words, i.e. “insufficient competence” (2010: 529), points towards a certain bias towards codeswitching in learner writing, especially regarding beginner-level learners. The presumption that codeswitching signals lacking proficiency in a target language does not seem to be extendable to advanced level learners or bi/multilingually raised children. In these cases, it has become more customary to refer to codeswitching as creative strategy displaying a speaker’s proficiency in several codes (see the study by Rahim & Haroon 2003, among others). The question arises as to whether codeswitching among advanced learners (who have proven their level of proficiency through exams etc.) reveals lacking language skills or rather the ability to move along several codes, i.e. languages. Keeping this in mind, it should be interesting to see whether the insertion of foreign elements in EFL learners’ research papers can be regarded as a conscious combination of codes, i.e. displaying multilingual competence as opposed to compensating for lacking competence.

In sum, previous research into foreign elements mostly found codeswitching in form of lexical bridges to avoid breakdowns in conversations. So far, the primary focus has been on spoken data and/or non-academic contexts. However, as the use of foreign elements is likely to serve very different means in academic texts, we consider it worthwhile to explore the use of multilingual elements in this written genre where a more formal register is expected. The type of insertion of foreign elements in this register is likely to differ from instances of codeswitching occurring in spoken data and/or text types other than academic essays as examined in learner corpus research studies so far. We expect that similar to studies in World Englishes, codeswitching in this context will display the creative and strategic use of multilingual resources based on conscious intentions going beyond mere gap-filling strategies to avoid breakdowns in communication and unconscious insertions of L1 pragmatic markers.

We intend to address this gap in research in the present study, which explores foreign elements in academic texts produced by advanced German EFL learners of English. In order to investigate foreign elements in EFL academic student writing, a qualitative analysis of the learners’ linguistics term papers taken from the Corpus of Academic Learner English (CALE; Callies & Zaytseva 2013) was conducted. In their term papers, the students were expected to report on studies they had conducted on their own and to use sources to embed their research in the relevant discourse community. This study thus fills a gap in research by focussing on texts which entailed the use of sources, but are not mere summaries thereof. To our knowledge this is the first study analysing the occurrence of codeswitching in untimed academic assignments prepared by EFL learners.

The present study aims to answer the following research questions:

  1. Which kinds of foreign elements are used in EFL research papers and how are they embedded?
  2. What are their functions?



The study was based on 93 research-based term papers written by linguistics students from the Corpus of Academic Learner English (CALE; Callies & Zaytseva 2013). The texts were composed in linguistics courses as untimed real-life assignments. The term papers had been written in linguistics classes conducted in English and the assignments were expected to be written in English. For their term paper, the students had to conduct a small-scale study on a linguistic phenomenon related to the topic of the class. The students had been instructed on the relevant research methods in the course of the class and had in some cases received a list of possible topics. The term papers analysed for this study covered a range of linguistic topics, e.g. from morphology, and most were based on corpus-linguistic methods. The total number of words in the corpus was 360,102; the average length of the texts was 3,872 words.

At the time their texts were submitted to the corpus, the writers of these research papers were undergraduate students in their twenties. They all had German as their L1. They were enrolled in a B.A. course in English studies at one of three different German universities (Bremen, Mainz, or Freiburg). Their proficiency level in English may be rated as high-intermediate to advanced as they had received an average of nine years of formal instruction in English at school and university at the time of writing.

Foreign elements in the corpus were identified via the tag <mentioned item> and via a search for linguistic elements that the students had placed in single or double quotation marks. Further manual analysis included the application of the spell checker in order to examine instances the word processing programme deemed linguistically foreign, i.e. not English.

All instances of foreign elements were then categorised along several parameters. First, the language of origin was recorded. Second, the element was coded for type using a deductive set of categories, namely syntactic units: morpheme, single word, compound, phrase, e.g. NP, VP, and clause. An additional inductive category for slogans/titles was added to this list when it became evident that such elements occurred in some of the texts and did not fit neatly into the syntactic categories. It was decided to treat such slogans and titles separately from clauses and phrases due to their different function. Slogans and titles were identified as such if it was evident from the context that the element in question came from advertising or alluded to a publication or film. The third parameter was textual integration. Coding began with two initial categories, namely “in text” and “set off from text”. The following fine-grained categories were then developed during coding: in-text (no marking / italics), in-text (in parentheses), in-text (with quotation marks), in-text (other marking), and set off. In addition, the function of each element in the respective sentence was recorded and tagged using the following inductively developed categories: gloss / translation, meta-linguistic, quotation, real-world reference, and terminology.

Initially, 30% of all instances of foreign elements were annotated by both researchers and their categorisation was discussed. If the categorisation of an element was not clear-cut, for instance if the annotators were not familiar with the respective language, the categorisation was discussed among the two researchers until agreement was reached. After this initial round of annotation, a further 10% were individually annotated by each researcher. As no disagreement occurred in the categorisation, all the remaining instances were then annotated by one of the researchers and checked by the other. The results were then quantified for each category with a view to answering the research questions.



159 instances of foreign elements were found in the research papers, with an average of 1.7 elements per text. Foreign elements occur in only 20 texts from the corpus, i.e. less than 22% of the texts, showing that they are a relatively rare phenomenon and unevenly distributed (see Figure 1). A comparison at those texts with and those without instances of foreign elements revealed that this striking number is a consequence of the different topics treated in the research papers, not of different multilingual attitudes of their writers. The papers containing codeswitching are almost without exception contrastive or diachronic studies in linguistics. The majority of the contrastive studies have a focus on a particular German expression and its equivalents in English, which explains the presence of single words from German in the corpus, as discussed below. There are also studies on loanwords, e.g. in New Zealand English. In the diachronic studies, the students frequently cite foreign words in their discussion of the etymology of the expressions which are at the focus of the study. The remaining term papers are studies of English learner language in which examples from German learners’ texts are given, e.g. the use of false friends. Those papers without codeswitching are all corpus studies of English, e.g. using COCA. Several of these studies focus on topics in semantics, e.g. near-synonymy and semantic shifts of English terms. In sum, the occurrence of foreign elements in these research-based term papers is largely task-induced, though some students appear to have a personal preference for the use of foreign elements.

Those texts in which foreign elements were identified contain between one and fifty instances, with an average of 7.95 elements.

Figure 1. Instances of foreign elements per term paper; the Y-axis shows the respective CALE text codes. The 73 research papers that did not contain any foreign elements are not shown in this figure.

Figure 1. Instances of foreign elements per term paper; the Y-axis shows the respective CALE text codes. The 73 research papers that did not contain any foreign elements are not shown in this figure.

There is a considerable difference between the texts that contain foreign elements. Papers with many instances of foreign elements have a title that suggests its crosslingual perspective, e.g. the treatment of bilingual puns (RPA1.G.MZ.026) or the discussion of loanwords into English (RPA2.G.HB.157). In contrast, those papers with one or two instances of non-English elements often contain a foreign element in a passage relating to etymology or in definitions. However, it is in these papers that we also find instances of passages in languages other than English that are integrated into the flow of the text. These include quotations and examples and are further discussed below.

The elements identified in the students’ term papers come from eight different languages. Among these are modern European languages, namely, German, French, and Polish, but also ancient languages, namely Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Old French. These occur in the aforementioned etymological discussions and definitions. There is a clear preference for the writers’ native language German among the foreign elements, which constitutes 85% of all elements found in the corpus (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Language of origin of foreign elements.

Figure 2. Language of origin of foreign elements.

The majority foreign elements in the corpus (58%) are single words (see Figure 3). As in Callies & Díez Bedmar’s (2018) study, the majority of these single words are nouns. Most of these function as cultural bridges or are terminology, as discussed below.

Figure 3. Types of foreign elements.

Figure 3. Types of foreign elements.

Most of these single words are taken from German, the students’ native language, see example (1).

(1) They are also able to connect this layer of meaning to the German word “Feger” (person who sweeps the streets) or  “Dreckig” (dirty). (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.026)

Longer elements were also found, e.g. phrases, see example (2). Slogans and titles from their native language are analysed by the students for their linguistics classes, for example slogans involving puns, see examples (3) and (4).

(2) “familiar” is used here as in the common German collocation: “familiäre Hintergründe”. (CALE; RPA1.G.HB.188)
(3) The next bilingual pun, “It’s zieh time”, clearly refers to the British tea culture. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.026)
(4) There are three bilingual puns which are referring to past or present American politics: “We kehr for you”, “Bereit für Ihren Cheese-Befehl” and “Lucky Streik”. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.26)

All foreign elements are integrated into the sentence structure; the analysis did not yield elements that are set off from text. Furthermore, there are no free-standing direct quotes from languages other than English in the corpus. The majority of elements (N=82) are integrated in the text without any marking such as italics. The second largest group of elements are integrated with the use of quotation marks (N=69). Other ways of integration, i.e. the use of parentheses and other marking, are rare (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Textual integration of foreign elements.

Figure 4. Textual integration of foreign elements.

3.2.2 Functions of foreign elements in EFL students’ term papers

Figure 5 shows that the vast majority of foreign elements in the corpus (N=148) is used metalinguistically, i.e. they are discussed on the meta-level (see also Callies & Díez Bedmar 2018 for an analysis of meta-linguistic uses in learner language).

Figure 5. Functions of foreign elements in research papers.

Figure 5. Functions of foreign elements in research papers.

These uses include discussion of linguistic elements (example 5), examples, e.g. of words containing morphemes (example 6), and explanations related to linguistic discussions, mostly of puns (example 7).

(5) We begin with the pun “Burgerinitiative” which refers to the “McDonaldization of society” […]. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.026)
(6) For instance, words that end in -ie in German (Familie, Komödie, Energie, Melodie) most of the time have equivalents ending in -y in English […]. (CALE; RPA2.G.HB.157)
(7) (It should be noted that simultaneously it might draw on the idiom “heißer Feger” (‘hot brush’) which is a sexual connotation for an attractive (female) PERSON). (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.039)

Another recurrent function is the use of foreign elements as glosses and translations of English terms, apparently for the reader’s convenience (N=7; examples 8–10).

(8) Sick is often used in idiomatic expressions, and is especially used in the business or administration domain, for example someone gets a sick pay. In German it is called ‘Krankengeld’. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.36)
(9) […] many complex prepositons are followed by the genitive, also the Polish equivalent for in case of ('w razie') and for as in case of ('jak w przypadku'). (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.010)
(10) Another food product coming from the United States of America are the low-fat products, called “Light-Produkte” in German. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.026)

The function of real-world reference occurs twice and is created exclusively via proper nouns (see example 11).

(11) […] a bar for students of a dorm in Aachen on the “Schillerstraße” […]. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.039)

There was only one instance each of quotation and terminology, which – as indicated by a short review of dissertations in the CALE – are possibly more frequent in other genres.

The qualitative analysis of the foreign elements revealed that the learner texts in the CALE, like the interviews in the LINDSEI analysed by De Cock (2015a, 2015b), also contain so-called cultural bridges. As in De Cock’s (2015a, 2015b) studies, which were based on oral data, proper nouns are used in the analysed research papers to create references to cultural institutions in languages other than English, as examples (12) and (13) show, though they are a minor phenomenon in these term papers

(12) On the other hand, this slogan appeared in the context of the “Internationale Schillertage” whereby the slogan alludes to the famous poet FRIEDRICH SCHILLER (see Staatstheater Mannheim 2011). (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.39)
(13) I have encountered this pun on the cover of the tea menu in a popular German restaurant/ bar, the ‘Café extrablatt’. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.026)

Proper nouns and publication titles (see example 14) are also rare in these EFL texts (cf. the relatively high frequency of cultural bridges found by De Cock 2015a, 2015b). They are especially salient in student papers discussing cultural practices where it is deemed preferable not to translate foreign-language terms. However, due to the specialised nature of the texts, they are likely to contain discipline-specific terminology from other languages, e.g. Latin (example 15).

(14) […] then the text goes on to cite Kasper’s article in 1995 called “Wessen Pragmatik?” describing the subdivision of the national language-community’s level of pragmatics into ”region, social class, gender, and generation” (Schneider 5).
(15) This is followed by a research with the purpose to find out whether the horror aequi is avoided or not in both constructions. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.003)

When writing about certain linguistic features, the EFL writers sometimes cite examples from languages other than English, see example (16). Foreign elements are often accompanied by a gloss in English, as in example (17).

(16) In German Language there is the idiom “Sprung in der Schüssel”. (CALE; RPA1.G.KLU.008)
(17) At the same time, the slogan “Der Held, was er verspricht” relies on the similarity between “Held” (hero) and “ (Versprechen) hält” (keep your promise) […]. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.026)

In some term papers, two or more languages are contrasted by the students with regard to specific linguistic phenomena. In such cases, words, phrases or sentences from other languages, e.g. German, are given in the text as examples, as in examples (18) and (19). Usually, these are accompanied by a gloss in English, see example (8). One student even provides German translations of English idioms, apparently for the reader’s convenience (example 9).

(18) Another difference between English and German phrasal verbs is, that the infinitive forms of the phrasal verbs are written as one word in German (abfahren), whereas they are written as two separate words in English (take off). The German compound word splits as soon as it is made use of in a sentence. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.009)
(19) The fact that English native speakers do not use this word-combination very often may be explained by a remark in the OALD, saying that in case of can be found "often on official notices". The same can be said for the German equivalent "Im Falle von". (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.010)
(20) There are three bilingual puns which are referring to past or present American politics: “We kehr for you”, “Bereit für Ihren Cheese-Befehl” and “Lucky Streik”. (CALE; RPA1.G.MZ.26)

In a similar vein, they may choose to analyse phenomena in their native language German in their English linguistics classes, for example the blends in (20).

It is clear from these examples that these advanced learners employ foreign elements in different ways than beginners and that the academic text type triggers very specific uses of foreign elements, as discussed below.


The EFL writers in this study used foreign elements in a variety of ways, many of which appear to be creative and conscious. It was found that the majority of foreign elements were individual words and phrases, usually from the writers’ L1 German. As hypothesised, these foreign elements were not employed to fill lexical gaps, unlike in spoken language (see De Cock 2015a, 2015b; Nacey & Graedler 2013).

The students’ use of elements from various languages in their term papers was driven by academic goals, not communicative ones. Many of the foreign elements were used meta-linguistically and were in fact the subject of investigation of the students’ studies. It seems clear from the comparison of papers with and without foreign elements that the use of foreign elements in students’ term papers was motivated by the topic of the term paper – which may have been assigned by the lecturer – and, possibly, the task requirements. In some cases, the foreign elements were at the focus of crosslinguistic discussions. It is also in line with the assumption of task-induced use of foreign elements that they often occurred as examples and to provide information about etymology. There is only a small number of passages in this corpus that contain foreign-language quotations and examples (see e.g. CALE texts RPA1.G.FR.009, RPA1.G.FR.012) that may be viewed as the students’ display of their multilingual competence. It is possible that references to literature in languages other than English are more common at more advanced levels of academic writing proficiency or in other text types, especially at expert level. The absence of foreign elements in the majority of papers may actually indicate that at this level of language proficiency and academic literacy, EFL students do not regard codeswitching to be an acceptable strategy in academic writing, but this assumption cannot be tested using these corpus data.

The fact that glosses and translations were provided may be interpreted as the students’ attempt to adhere to academic writing conventions. Their use can be viewed as a sign that the learners are aware of the practices common to linguistic research papers, which they emulate in order to appropriate published academic writing. The learners made a conscious choice to provide these explanations. By including glosses and translations, they ensure that their use of foreign elements is understandable even in the case of a different linguistic background of their reader. Thus, they are writing not only with their lecturer in mind, but also facilitate the understanding of their argument by other members of the discourse community. Both the use of foreign elements and of glosses and translations are clearly deliberate. This stands in contrast to previous studies in which the use of foreign elements was not typically glossed or otherwise explained by the learners. The learners also used discipline-specific terminology, e.g. from Latin as well as examples and illustrations from languages other than English. This shows their attempts to adopt a style that is appropriate both to the specialised nature of these texts and to academic writing conventions. In these instances, they thus employed their multilingual competence in order to create an academic writing style appropriate to a research paper in linguistics.

The students unsurprisingly preferred examples from their native language when discussing linguistic phenomena in their papers. The occurrence of morphemes, slogans, and other short syntactic elements in these research papers can be explained by their topics and the fact that these elements were discussed as examples of linguistic phenomena in these papers written in linguistics classes. The learners’ meta-linguistic use of foreign elements showcased their ability to discuss linguistic phenomena encountered in a variety of languages, which was probably a pedagogic goal of these term papers. It was thus much more indicative of their knowledge of linguistics and their professional approach to academic writing than of their multilingual competence. This is underlined by the fact that some of the foreign elements in definitions and etymological explanations originated from languages in which the students are unlikely to be competent. Nevertheless, the EFL learners exploited the similar multilingual competence of the reader, i.e. the lecturer, by using examples from their native language German.

The various ways in which advanced learners of English employ foreign elements in academic texts may be viewed as an aspect of their academic literacy that is not necessarily related to their linguistic competence in English. In contrast to the learners interviewed for the LINDSEI (De Cock 2015a, 2015b; Nacey & Graedler 2013) and the learners in the longitudinal study of written texts (Agustín Llach 2010), the writers in the present study did not use foreign items as an L1-based communicative strategy in their research papers. Instead, the use of other languages served the construction of meanings that could not have been expressed with only one language. The students furthermore applied their multilingual competence for research purposes. Examples from other languages and cultural bridges are thus indicative of their professional and comprehensive approach to academic reading and writing that takes into consideration knowledge encoded in more than one language. The learners in this study are not trying to avoid breakdowns in communication, but rather employ their multilingual competence and metalinguistic awareness. They achieve this by embedding passages from other languages into their English texts, which allows them to showcase their ability to discuss linguistic phenomena encountered in a variety of languages and thus the breadth of their knowledge. It can be assumed that the use of multilingual elements is dependent on the proficiency level of the learners and that less proficient writers’ term papers may display uses of codeswitching that are more akin to those found in studies of spoken language and argumentative writing (Callies & Díez Bedmar 2018; De Cock 2015a, 2015b; Nacey & Graedler 2013). Similarly, while the use of foreign elements in definitions and as cultural bridges may also be found in monolingual student writers’ texts, references to literature in other languages are unlikely to occur.

The topics selected by or assigned to these multilingual writers allowed them to make use of their knowledge of languages other than English. The findings indicate that EFL student writers’ use of foreign elements at advanced levels of proficiency is much more similar to that observed in World Englishes contexts than to the codeswitching practises of beginner-level learners of English (see Rahim & Haroon 2003; Agustín Llach 2010). Returning to the questions posed above, it can be stated then that the informants for the present study indeed display their ability to move along several codes. However, as many students’ texts did not contain any trace of codeswitching despite their knowledge of several languages, conclusions as to a learner’s multilingual ability based on their writing must be drawn with great caution.


The present study examined the use of foreign elements in research papers of German EFL learners taken from the CALE. Most inserted foreign elements, i.e. 85% of all elements found in the corpus, were taken from the learners’ L1 German but also included other modern European languages and ancient languages such as Ancient Greek and Latin. An analysis of textual integration showed that all foreign elements were integrated into the sentence structure; the examination did not yield elements that were set off from text. With regards to the functions of codeswitching it became apparent that that the vast majority of foreign elements in the corpus (N=148) were used meta-linguistically. Furthermore, foreign elements were sometimes accompanied by glosses or translations, which can be attributed to the fact that the informants wanted to accommodate their readers.

In consideration of the specialised nature of the texts analysed in the present study, the learners employed discipline-specific terminology from their L1 German and other languages, e.g. Latin. Their use of foreign elements also included examples that the students had invented themselves. Some papers contrasted two or more languages with regard to specific linguistic phenomena, illustrated by examples taken from all languages considered. The learner texts in the CALE, like the interviews in the LINDSEI analysed by De Cock (2015a, 2015b), also contain references to cultural institutions in languages other than English and, rarely, publication titles. In our data, the former are especially salient in student papers discussing cultural practices where it is deemed preferable not to translate foreign-language terms. Overall, however, cultural bridges were infrequent in these EFL texts.

This study suggests that foreign elements in EFL academic texts fulfil very different functions than essays, argumentative texts, and spoken language. Foreign elements in these texts did not serve to fill lexical gaps or for self-repair, unlike in the studies reviewed above. There were not inserted to merely “compensate for the breakdown due to insufficient competence” (Agustín Llach 2010: 529) but were rather integrated carefully by linguistically competent learners. As a result, the presence of foreign elements in students’ texts can be viewed here as a sign of their multilingual competence rather than lacking proficiency. This study thus complements findings of previous studies of beginners by shedding light onto the use of foreign elements in written academic assignments prepared by more advanced learners. It is clear from our results that it is not their low proficiency in English that motivated these students to use foreign elements but they were aiming to meet task requirements and their teachers’ expectations. In fact, many instances of foreign elements could be explained in reference to topic and task of the research-based term papers. It is therefore important to adopt a more fine-grained view of codeswitching in learner writing as it fulfils different functions depending on the text type and context and is not necessarily a communicative strategy.

The results of the present study cannot be generalised to larger learner cohorts due to the fact that they were all written by learners of the same native language and all stem from the same discipline. The use of foreign elements in these papers is most likely discipline-specific. For example, research papers from other disciplines are likely to exhibit significantly fewer meta-linguistic uses of foreign elements. More text types need to be explored and more disciplines considered in order to gain a thorough understanding of the use of foreign elements in EFL learners’ academic writing, especially when they are truly exploiting their multilingual competence. This concerns other academic text types, such as abstracts, reviews, and research proposals, which are likely to be similar to research papers and may also contain foreign elements mostly in the form of examples, translations, and glosses. However, this also includes spoken-like text types such as chats and tweets. It would be interesting to investigate whether such text types contain more lexical and cultural bridges due to their closeness to spoken language. The present study highlights the usefulness of annotation of foreign elements in corpora for furthering our understanding of codeswitching (see also Callies & Wiemeyer 2017 and Callies & Díez Bedmar 2018). Mixed methods studies of multilingual practices by L2 writers in academic contexts may complement corpus-based studies and uncover learners’ motivations and subjective theories regarding the use of codeswitching.

Teachers of English for academic purposes courses should be aware of the ways in which multilingual competence can serve both communicative and academic goals. Being allowed to read and cite literature in languages other than English may help non-native students develop their citation skills. Discussions of the use of terminology in other languages can raise students’ awareness of the issues associated with translations of such specialised vocabulary. However, the deliberate inclusion of foreign elements in academic writing is also something teachers of disciplinary courses should consider, for example to raise students’ awareness of the co-textual integration of quotations and terminology from other languages. It is possible that linguistics students find it motivating to make use of their knowledge of different languages when they are assigned research topics for which such knowledge is required. If teachers point out the advantages of their students’ ability to move between different languages in academic contexts, they may help them carefully apply their multilingual competence to become better writers.


We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers who engaged with our paper in a respectful and helpful way and whose insightful and thorough critiques have helped us improve our study. Any remaining errors are our own.

We would like to dedicate this paper to the memory of Prof. Dr. Frank G. Königs, who, many years ago, taught Leonie the basics about multilingualism and later encouraged and supported her in her first steps towards an academic career.


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