On Code Switching and Popular Culture

For many students, code switching, or the ability to “move between variations of language in different settings,” is an integral part of their everyday experience (Code Switching 2012). For some, this “language” alternation may be  subtle in that they maintain the same language, but has “tonal variations,” meanings and abbreviations change, while for others, they have to switch drastically because it “involves alternating between two languages” (Code Switching 2012).  For the students who are asked to switch drastically, what they are actually doing is disengaging from their home-based identities and come to school to assume new ones.  While I have come to believe, based on my personal experience, that once an individual has mastered this art of code switching, they can thrive in various settings, for young people who are asked to switch, they may be challenged with questions about who they are and why it is that they need to behave differently to be like everyone else.  

In the words of David Foster Wallace in This Is Water, these students are well aware of their environments and the fact that they are in water; therefore, they are reading their surroundings, examining other fish and adjusting while doing it.

I am actually quite intrigued by this concept of code switching because it is something that I have been doing for many years.

As discussed in a previous post, I was born in Guyana and moved to New York City at the age of twelve. Although I have always spoken English as my only language, the English language of my childhood was Guyanese creole.  Even though it has been many years since I moved, I can still switch back and forth between the language of my childhood and what we know as standard American English. Often times, the decision to switch between the two is not even a conscious one because I know that when speaking to my grandmother, I will speak creole, when speaking to my students or colleagues, I will use standard English and when speaking to my children, I have the liberty of going back-and-forth between the two. Another nuance of my code switching habits comes from my personal identity as a New Yorker.

Recently, my daughter and I visited my parents who live in the Bronx and decided to take a walk down their street. While walking, we encountered a former high school classmate and stopped to chat about what we were both doing, who we had married, our children, and old friends. It was a conversation into which I fell easily and enjoyed thoroughly. What struck me was what happened after we said goodbye and my daughter and I continued walking. After taking a moment or two, she said, in her eleven-year-old animated voice, “Mom, when you were talking to your friend just now, you sounded SO like a New Yorker!” Although I was not aware that it had happened, I had made an adjustment to my language to suit the social context because after all, I was in the Bronx and I was having a conversation with an old acquaintance from the Bronx.

I used to feel very insecure about my ability to switch depending on where I was and with whom I was speaking because I thought that it was an indication of not knowing who I truly am. What I am realizing instead, is that the ability to switch is not vulnerability; it is my way of “reading” situations and acting according to my perceptions of it.  Further, I have decided that it can be quite empowering because what it means is that my identity is multifaceted and that I can embrace every one of those facets. Actually, it’s a lot of fun!

If we believe, as Gee proposes in Social Linguistics and Literacies:  Ideology in Discourses (2012) that one of the points of education is to prepare young people to develop “behaviors and attitudes appropriate to good citizenship and moral behavior,” then we must accept that there are rules and expectations that are non-negotiable.  For example, one of the first lessons that children learn in school is that it is important to share with their friends and treat each other kindly.  These expectations, as Gee points out, become more complicated when “different sorts of behavior and attitudes” are expected “for different classes of individuals”(2012).  This act of setting children apart based on certain criteria, can set the stage for a “culture of inequality” (Steele 1992).  Based on my experience in the classroom, I can say that there are inherent problems with a tracking system because in many ways, it reinforces this “culture of inequality” (2012). I have found that when students are identified and placed in “ AP” and “honors” level courses, the result is that they begin their preparation to become “leaders” who “create innovations” (Gee 2012). In the same way, students in the academic level track are trained to be “‘knowledge workers’ who must bring technical, collaborative and communicational skills to the workplace” (2012).  The question then is, how does one become a part of a track?  The answers are many, but one that stands out as an overwhelming factor is the child’s early childhood experiences.  

A case in point–at the beginning of this school year, I asked all of my freshman students to describe their earliest memory related to reading.  All of the students in my honors level class shared touching stories about crawling into a parent’s lap and listening to their favorite bedtime stories.  When I asked my academic or middle-level students the same question, very few of them were able to recall a memory from childhood.  Even when prompted about a favorite book or someone reading to them, many could not come up with an anecdote.  What I am learning is that there is a distinct correlation between early experiences and identity because many of individuals struggle to see themselves as students.  It is important to note that I make a conscious decision to deliver the same content, experiences, challenges and skills to every one of my students–no matter the track.

As we continue to consider concepts of literacy, identity and code-switching, we are forced to also examine how we choose to express ourselves, which parts we will show, and our audiences.  When switching languages in person, we know the context and so, can alter based on our perceptions; however, when the medium becomes  far-reaching and the audience more ambiguous, which version of ourselves will we showcase?  Will it be the standard English version or the informal, text-language version?  Do we have total control of how the information will be perceived by the audience and what if we can not actually anticipate their reaction?  How do we alter our code to fit?  Perhaps then, the safe route is to take our cue from popular culture as depicted in various media?

On the note of popular culture, one of the things that angers me is the way in which some television shows, geared toward younger children, portray the role of fathers.  When my children were younger, they loved to watch shows like iCarly, Austin and Ally, Zach and Cody and Jessie.  What I quickly realized was that in every one of those shows, the father figure was either absent or portrayed as comical and one to be made fun of.  Although I did not discourage my children from watching, I did have conversations with them about how children should treat their parents and the respect that is owed to them.

A Note on Form:  This week, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the readings and about the practice of code switching.  Throughout the process, I also spent time thinking about the written and spoken word, as discussed by Plato (spoken is best) and Thoreau (spoken is transitory, but written is held up like stars for future astronomers to read), I decided to write my response–not because I feel that my writing will endure the ages and be held up for all to read, but because I spent quite a bit of time considering and reconsidering my understanding and perspectives on literacy, language, social contexts and code switching and writing afforded me the opportunity to draft, revise, draft and revise some more.


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