Codeswitching

Marina Kazarian and Liliana Greyf

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Code switching is the act of someone modifying their language or demeanor based on their surrounding environment. It is often associated with the change of behavior in groups that are predominantly of a certain race, sexuality, religion, or gender.
“We are all taught at a very young age that to be considered for certain types of positions or to be looked at in a certain way in society, there are norms that we must participate in,” history teacher Melissa Morales said. “One of these is speaking a particular version of English. There is an inherent understanding that it is a requirement.”
“Code switching is sometimes necessary for someone from a historically marginalized group to gain access to opportunities that they are not normally allowed to pursue,” science teacher Dr. Rachel Mohammed said. “The cultural norms, codes of conduct, and cultural frames of reference of the marginalized and subjugated group may be viewed as unacceptable, unsophisticated, and beneath the dominant group. When an individual’s work ethic, abilities, skills and intelligence are judged based on the negative stereotypes of their group, this can be used as a justification for denying an individual the opportunity to attain leadership and supervisory positions on teams or in organizations, and acceptance or admittance into elite programs and organizations.”
Often, code switching is perceived negatively. “Code switching in its core can have a negative impact,” Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture and Institutional Equity John Gentile said. Needing to code switch indicates that we have to reform or reimagine part of who we are in our spaces and communities, he said.
There is a level of misunderstanding when it comes to the need to code switch. “A lot of people don’t understand code switching, which leads to students or adults being labeled as something that they are not,” history teacher Ricardo Alvarez said. “People who code switch are often incorrectly labeled as unsophisticated, inappropriate, or ‘ghetto,’ when in reality, they’re just expressing their most honest sense of self.”
However, code switching can sometimes be necessary, and even beneficial, Alvarez said. “There’s lots of advantages in terms of self expression, confidence, opening yourself up to other people, and forging genuine connections with close friends. It is great to have spaces and times to be able to step aside from the dominant cultural norms we have here.”
Code switching provides moments in which students can feel a temporary sense of relief from academic and social pressures, Alvarez said. “Code switching thus becomes a tool for survival and healthy self-expression, allowing students to be in a community with others and to re-align themselves.”
Some teachers find themselves code switching constantly. “I code switch everyday of my life,” Mohammed said. “It has become almost automatic. If you ask me to express myself according to the norms, codes of conduct, and cultural references under which I was raised, it would almost be like I am mimicking such an individual. To me, it will feel forced and exaggerated. One interesting phenomenon I have noticed about myself is that I can simultaneously, in real time, be in a room full of faculty where I speak to them with what I perceive to be the accepted accent and grammar, and also be on the phone speaking to my parents in colloquial Trinidadian. Sometimes I use colloquial Trinidadian in the classroom with my students.”
Morales said that code switching has become completely natural in her lifestyle. “There are some things that I say in my personal life or certain behaviors that I have been aware—for a long time—would not be welcome in the broader world. Those are things that don’t present themselves,” she said. “Sometimes, outside of my professional life, I may use words that would be labeled as slang or unsophisticated that feel like natural expressions of myself.”
Alvarez code switches when speaking to his students in Spanish, his native language. Some students are more comfortable expressing themselves when he speaks Spanish, he said. “Even though we are both capable of speaking fluent English, if a student comes to me expressing a concern in Spanish, I respect that,” Alvarez said. “I feel that a lot of the code switching that occurs in these situations has to do with establishing a level of privacy, sensitivity, and genuine connection. People who are multilingual often think, feel, and express themselves in different ways.”
Although code switching occurs at many institutions, there are qualities of Horace Mann that could cause the need to code switch more frequently. “The culture at Horace Mann is one where students are expected to engage in a very high and sophisticated level of discourse in different disciplines all throughout the day,” Alvarez said. Students need to have other spaces and other opportunities to express themselves in less formal settings, such as in non-academic conversations or contexts; spaces that are created through conversations with friends, club settings, or in affinity groups, he said.
“I think that because this is a school of high performing people—both teachers and students— we are all consciously trying to adhere to a standard every day. It is that standard that encourages code switching. We are all trying to demonstrate how well educated we are and how competitive we can be,” Morales said. “At a school like Horace Mann, we are all being called on to perform.”
However, the school’s environment is not one of purely academic challenges and the constant need for perfection. “I do also see that the student body is generally very collegial with each other,” Morales said. “That gives people the freedom to express themselves more authentically.”
Many teachers feel that code switching is not something that is experienced solely by one group or type of individuals. “We all have to navigate so many different dimensions of our personalities [and]our lives,” Alvarez said. “It is not going to have the same meaning or purpose for everyone, but I think that we can all be familiar with what it feels like to navigate different spaces.”
Every student code switches, especially when it comes to informal versus formal situations, Chris Ha (12) said. They act one way with their teachers and another, more informal, way around their friends.
Code switching may help students fit into certain situations and with different groups, Taussia Boadi (12) said. Although she code switches to bond more with different groups of people, Boadi acknowledges that, on the other hand, code switching can detract from a person’s genuinity, in the sense that they should not conform to what the group does, she said.
Ha and Tomoko Hida (10) said that code switching is something that people do to feel more comfortable around different people.
“I find that I code switch the most depending on who I’m speaking to,” Nshera Tutu (11) said. Tutu feels far more comfortable using African-American Vernacular English when talking to her black friends, and is “incredibly hesitant” to use it with other people.
“I’m very conscious of the way I speak around certain people, and [I] am sure to speak properly because I don’t want unfamiliar or ignorant people to think I’m less intelligent or articulate,” Tutu said.
Boadi found herself code switching between different racial groups as well, she said. “Having gone to a predominantly white school from my elementary school years, I didn’t have any students of color to interact with that looked like me, so I just found myself naturally acting the way my white peers acted,” Boadi said. “When I came to Horace Mann, I found myself feeling out of place in the black community, so I began code switching to be more like them, as opposed to code switching to fit in with the white community.”
Hida finds herself trying to act more like the typical white American. “Let’s say I’m at the Harvard Club with my mom, and I’m talking to all of these alumni that my mom is trying to get me to talk to because they know stuff about fashion that I would benefit from,” she said. “I’m going to try and make it so that I sound more mature, more respectable, smarter, and more white. I don’t want to be too Asian or too different; I’m trying to become one of them.”
When with her black peers, Boadi will listen to hip hop music and give the impression that she knows the songs well, when in reality, she listens to more pop music, she said. She also speaks differently around her black counterparts. “I naturally speak with a higher pitch, and I don’t curse a lot, but when I’m around my black peers, I find my voice going lower and louder, and I use more profane language,” she said.
Ha also code switches around people of various ethnicities. “When I’m with my Korean friends, I feel like they understand some of the references I make, so I might code switch with them from my other friends,” he said.
Hida and Ashley Chung (10) said that being respectful around adults is one of the most prominent attributes of Asian culture.
“Obviously, with my parents, I am so much more respectful to them, because I feel like you can’t be rude to your parents when you’re Asian,” Chung said.
“I’ll probably stand more, even when it’s a seated event, and stand in a more modest, hands to myself kind of way when I’m meeting new people,” Hida said. “I think that it’s also maybe something I’m used to doing, as it’s part of my culture. It’s the more respectful thing to do.”
“Code switching can be advantageous if you’re trying to find new ways to connect to people,” Tutu said. “Language is a really powerful tool, because it’s the main mode of communication, and so switching the manner in which you speak to be better understood by another person is really helpful. However, if you’re doing it so that people don’t make negative assumptions about you, I think it unfortunately reinforces stereotypes and in general makes people feel bad about themselves.”