Food & Culture

All of Your Relationships Are Affected by Your Code-Switching

Language is a funny thing. It's how you communicate your thoughts to other people, but it also plays an important role in how those thoughts come up in the first place. Sometimes, as you move through the world, you'll find yourself subconsciously slipping into another way of speaking — maybe you'll suppress or enhance your accent, or only use certain phrases around certain people, or, if you're multilingual, seamlessly mix several languages into a speech only your family can understand. That's called "code-switching," and you might be surprised by the effect it has on the world.

A Lingo for Every Occasion

Let's say you're serving in the military. When you're speaking with a superior officer, you are expected to use proper titles and respect as you discuss some heavy and delicate subjects. But your experiences with your fellow soldiers may have given you a dark sense of humor, so with your peers, you might talk about those exact same subjects with a little less decorum. You don't necessarily want to share your experiences with your civilian friends and family, so you might be a little more guarded and subdued around them. With all that, imagine if you're at a holiday dinner with the family and you get a phone call from one of your old squad-mates. You might suddenly and unconsciously slip into a different manner of speaking — and your in-laws might start wondering where this chatty jokester came from.

In a nutshell, code-switching is when you make that transition from one way of speaking to another based on your social setting. Everybody does it, but it can be especially pronounced in multicultural societies that are dominated by one particular demographic with one particular way of speaking. If you live in the United States and grew up speaking Spanish and English, for example, you know the phenomenon well. Spanish might be the language you use at home, while English is how you communicate in school, and with your similarly bilingual friends you might speak a mix of the two instead. The end result? You might feel more comfortable using certain languages for certain purposes: English to give a presentation, Spanish to say something loving, and Spanglish to tell a joke.

But while your setting might be the most influential reason to code-switch, there are lots of other reasons as well. For example, you might be scared out of your wits. As second-generation Japanese immigrant Lisa Okamoto told NPR's Codeswitch blog, she discovered that while she's as confident about her Japanese as she is her English, a visit to a haunted house in Japan provoked screams in English obscenities, not Japanese ones. Another reason, this one offered by Spanish, English, and French speaker Veronica Rodriguez, is that a different language can be a good way to convey a secret around someone who doesn't speak that tongue ... up to a point. Of course, if you don't realize the hottie you're talking about also speaks French, he might just say, "Merci!" And sometimes, code-switching is the only way that you can convey a thought, as educator Jennifer Monahan explained. The French have never really brought their lunches from home, so students at her bilingual school learn to pack "le lunchbox."

The Language-Filled Brain

For many people, code-switching is a tool that's necessary to navigate a monolinguistic society, whether their other "codes" are an entirely different language like Spanish or another dialect of the dominant language, like Black English (or African-American English, or AAE). Some experts have even suggested it's worthwhile to explore code-switched classes, similar to ESL classes that cover both the material and the English words for the material. To communication sciences professor Julie Washington, teaching black kids how to code-switch between their home dialect and their school dialect is a vital step towards leveling the playing field in the United States. Furthermore, there's strong evidence that students that have more than one dialect in their heads outperform those who are monolingual or mono-dialectical.

Speaking with the Atlantic, Washington explained how those differences expressed themselves. Many kids who speak Black English learn to code-switch towards the end of kindergarten, another wave picks up the skill towards the end of first grade, and another in second. But after that, "code-switching isn't going to happen unless you teach it," she said. "We know those kids will have trouble." By the end of fourth grade, students that can code-switch score about one full grade higher in reading than their classmates who didn't pick it up.

In fact, some of her research has shown that this reading gap is strongest in places where the dialect is furthest from phonetic English — that suggests that the pronunciation has developed so far from the original spelling that kids who speak this dialect may struggle to see how the letters they're learning form the words that they know. That is, they may be having a similar experience to kids whose primary language isn't English. In that case, it's not at all surprising that the kids who learn to code-switch would outperform the ones who didn't. Plus, there may be even more benefits to straddling the line between two dialects. It's well-documented that bilingual brains are often healthier — perhaps that should be amended to include speakers of multiple dialects as well.

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For more about the value of Black English, check out "Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca" by John McWhorter. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 26, 2018

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