Code-switchin’

Posted on April 17, 2013

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If you have not tuned in, NPR has a new neat blog with a focus on code-switching: a linguistics term for “switching between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation.” To that is added cultural code-switching, not just the language of words, but the cultural norms and practices defining how and why those words are used.

What fascinates me is that somehow this makes it a “mainstream discussion” because it is on a NPR platform.  You can see this in all the love and excitement from various crowds that have now discovered a term and platform to share their stories.

There are bound to be many stories that will be highlighted and shared as the Code Switch Blog blossoms.

To that I wanted to share some thoughts and insights from my experience as an educator, immigrant, and “professional dabbler”—broken up in the following categories:

  • Personal experience growing up as an immigrant in US schools
  • Professional experience as an educator
  • Personal experience as a professional and professional experience in personal identity

 

Code-switching from a personal immigrant experience growing up though US education system:

I came to the US from Mexico in the 4th grade—so much was new! I was young enough that I learned English pretty quickly. But at the same time I struggled with the sounds of some letters and cultural norms (the “v” is very tricky).

I had my “Latino friends” and my “white friends”. I also had my “academic behavior” and my “non-school behavior”.  This was compounded by the fact that I grew up in a rural conservative area and I was tracked in college prep classes starting in junior high school.

What that meant was that some aspects of my life were fairly demarcated with code-switching opportunities and challenges. I tuned in and practiced academic English in my Advanced Placement classes, followed cultural family practices at home, and then navigated Spanglish modalities at quinceañeras and playing in a Mexican cover band (rather, “en un grupo” in Spanish).

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I switched around from “defining literary milieu” to “mande? Si amá!” to “Qiubole guey!”

I would carry these experiences to my adult life (I struggled to call professors by their first name), but they would also inform my connections and understanding of working with Latino students later as a teacher.

 

Code-switching as a teacher in middle school and high school:

As a teacher, my personal experience brought to question: how do we “teach” for code-switching? Why is it valuable? How do we think about it as a deliberate education outcome? This is important because it could be left as an implicit diffusive process that students simply learn to navigate on their own—or it can be a deliberate process that students understand provides them with additional tools to succeed in different settings.

The idea was highlighted even more working English Language Learners, but it was just as important in any “mainstream class”. Done poorly, the message to students is that they need to give up their “language” for “proper language”. Done well, students understand that different languages can serve as keys—you do not have to take away one key when you get another one. You can add them to your key chain to use as appropriate to open different doors.  Students clearly understand that it is a necessity to switch between keys and it can be done deliberately—and additive process to identity, rather than feelings of “selling out”.

With my students, I acknowledged the keys they came with, why the needed them, and asked for them to share them with me. At the same time, I clarified that I would be providing a key for them to use in other settings, and we would practice it. I further gave examples of how I code-switched myself, which astounded some students since they assumed I “always talked like that” (i.e. using academic English).

 

Code-switching as an instructor for teachers:

In working with credential students (graduate students working on their teaching coursework), I am more explicit in talking about code-switching, especially in thinking about it as a teaching opportunity with specific strategies to help students with academic English.

With my Spanish language and Latino culture students we talk about the differences between “proper code-switching”, blends of Spanglish, anglicisms, slang and even caló (yes, there are differences!).

With my subject area students (math and science) we specifically look at how to use language objectives and linguistic frames so students can “verbalize to internalize”—having student explicitly practice academic language instead of assuming they just need to pick it up by being in a classroom. It goes beyond just learning vocabulary lists and “math and science words”, it is examining speech patterns and for what contexts they are appropriate (how do groups attain consensus? How does one deliberate? How does one ask questions?)

It is especially crucial because the classroom is a perfect place to practice academic English (no expectation of practicing with friends) and other forms of code-switching—if we do not, we set students up to fail or struggle, especially when they reach college. We see those struggles with students placed in remedial classes. Most of the time it is not a question of cognitive ability or capacity to understand—it is likely a language barrier, or an inability to code-switch.

 

Code-switching in my current state, evolving with identities:

Now that I am “grown up and educated”, I think about code-switching fairly regularly. Part of it is based on the work I do (see sections above) and part of it lies in my interests and continuing evolution of my identity. Much of that identity is dealing with various shades of mestizaje (“mixing”), from ethnicity to profession, and feelings of “ni de aquí ni de allá” (neither from here nor there).

In terms of ethnicity, as a Latino/Chicano, cultural code-switching is simply a “fact of life”. It comes into play when one is with family, with friends, in academic settings, and in mainstream culture. It is an extension of the code-switching experience I had growing up—though of course new opportunities for learning are ever present, especially living in diverse urban environments.

As a profession, it is based in education but I am also interested in science. There I am attuned to code-switching there in terms of the language used, but also the frame of thinking and perspective that comes from a structured scientific approach. A big part of how that is explored is through the field of science communication, because you can see how journalists cover the sciences or how scientists communicate their field to non-scientists—and the code-switching opportunities and challenges there.

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So I look forward to reading the stories of others and their code-switching experiences. We all have them, and they are especially noticeable in the stories and experiences of people of color. But as the US continues to diversify and the mainstream reflects a wider variety of histories, code-switching will be less about being different than the mainstream, and more about how it defines the mainstream.

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