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October 22, 2010 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Code-switching is using different languages or language varieties in different contexts. Ta-Nehisi Coates does it. Jay-Z does it. The President does it. But, for African Americans, is code-switching necessary to escape poverty, an element of race as performed or neither?
posted by l33tpolicywonk (63 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
From Coates:
I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don't say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there's the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:11 AM on October 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


Poor whites have problems code switching, too. It's an education problem. You can't speak in someone else's language if you don't know it.
posted by empath at 7:14 AM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


(not shifting blame here, obviously educational opportunities are sparse for poor people in general, and it's not easy to adopt the mores of the middle and upper classes if you aren't exposed to it.)
posted by empath at 7:17 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


But doesn't TV expose them to a "middle class" style of language every day? I think it would be more a case of knowing the language, but not having a reason or desire to switch to it.
posted by rocket88 at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


I grew up code-switching, albeit between languages. When my mom was still alive all phonecalls with her took place in this weird amalgam of Russian and English which wasn't just vocabulary switching but also English words spoken with a thick Russian accent and using Russian morphology. I came here when I was six, so my knowledge of technical/computer Russian is nonexistant so I'd end up saying things like "downlodivay."

I live in NYC and have always worked/continue to work with a lot of people who do AAVE code switching. I wrote about some of my experiences -- specifically, starting to code-switch into AAVE myself, in a hilariously uncadenced manner -- in a previous comment.

I also currently work for a non-profit employment center primarily focusing on NYC's the underprivileged/underserved communities and code-switching out of AAVE (more than 50% of our applicants are black) is one of the biggest work skills a person can develop if they've conducted most of their life in AAVE. It's really, really necessary to get ahead and I've seen people unable to code-switch into "regular" English constantly left behind, whether its an office setting or retail.

I'm really torn on this. On the one hand, AAVE isn't broken English or slang. On the other hand, there is really something uncomfortable about practicaly forcing individuals to adapt to others' privilege to get ahead. Imagine if women, to get ahead in business, all had to cut their hair short. That's not an exact comparison as this is a genuine communication issue -- there are levels of AAVE and even having grown up in NYC, I find it difficult to understand it sometimes -- but it's still a very complicated issue.
posted by griphus at 7:32 AM on October 22, 2010 [15 favorites]


this classic internet meme video seems to be an example of such "code switching"?
posted by symbioid at 7:34 AM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Reading the first sentence too fast, I thought this post was going to be about context switching, which seemed a bit esoteric for the front page.

Great post though.
posted by kmz at 7:34 AM on October 22, 2010


On the one hand, AAVE isn't broken English or slang. On the other hand, and there is really something uncomfortable about practicaly forcing individuals to adapt to others' privilege to get ahead.

FTFM.
posted by griphus at 7:35 AM on October 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


there is really something uncomfortable about practicaly forcing individuals to adapt to others' privilege to get ahead.

Do you go by something like "Misha" or "Mikhail," or do you introduce yourself as something like "Michael"? Do you wear a suit and/or oxford shirt at work or a tolstovka?
posted by deanc at 7:44 AM on October 22, 2010


I go by "Yakov" and not "Jacob" and I'll say that 75% of Russian immigrants in their mid-20s do not Anglicize their names. 95% in my parents' generation. ("Yevgeniy" being a constant exception to this.) Russian dress is also completely Westernized there and here so that's a moot point.
posted by griphus at 7:53 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always get weirded out with non-African Americans speak AAVE. I think nearly all of them must be posers, but in my town neighborhoods are integrated enough that it makes me certain at least some are just talking the neighborhood dialect without regard for race.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 7:55 AM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


But doesn't TV expose them to a "middle class" style of language every day? I think it would be more a case of knowing the language, but not having a reason or desire to switch to it.

A fair chunk of the college students I work with come from the immediate vicinity, which is generationally poor and overwhelmingly white, and they often have a lot of trouble with code-switching even though they've been immersed in TV and movies all their lives. To some extent it may have to do with resisting the middle-class trappings that can make them targets for derision or even violence in their home cultural context.

But there's also a big element of linguistic-deafness -- honestly just not noticing or hearing the dialectal differences. Our neighborhood store owner, who I've known for 17 years, will mock some of the other locals for their "bad English," he'll point out an obvious expression or two: a double negative, an "ain't," "had went," stuff like that. But he himself routinely uses some local code such as "She don't like it" without any awareness that he's doing it.

Like people who say "nukular" actually hear themselves saying "nuclear."
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:56 AM on October 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's something we need to recognize, but not necessarily celebrate or mythologize the way Coates has.

Gondor (I'm not going to replicate his use of Mordor) hasn't enforced and perpetuated a culture in which Rohirrim are seen as less than human, and continually denigrated and mocked Rohirrim culture.
posted by muddgirl at 8:00 AM on October 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


One fascinating example of code switching is Susana Chávez-Silverman's books, Killer Crónicas and Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros Natural Disasters . She interchanges Spanish and English, uses whichever language has the best word for the concept she is trying to convey.
posted by niles at 8:04 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your title reminds me of the time I was in a car with my ex-gf waiting to pick someone up in DC at a bus stop. A guy who was apparently trying to get customers to park in his garage came up and asked, "Are you straight?" and I was like "Yeah, I'm good." Ex-gf was like, "Did that guy just ask if you're gay?"
posted by callmejay at 8:16 AM on October 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


I always get weirded out with non-African Americans speak AAVE. I think nearly all of them must be posers, but in my town neighborhoods are integrated enough that it makes me certain at least some are just talking the neighborhood dialect without regard for race.

That's definitely the case here in Oakland. I've lived here for 13+ years and it still catches me off guard when I see some Asian kid run down the street calling "Yo, nigga!" at his Latino buddy in a completely unironic moment. See it quite often.

I sometimes wistfully think what life would be like had the city council (or whomever it was) had used "code shifting" rather than "Ebonics". I don't so much mind Oakland being the butt of jokes as much as educating our youth is a serious issue that is not going well, and all the "We be fucked" jokes were/are a distraction to the ongoing problem.

And after getting all serious for a moment, Barbara Billingsley chaser.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:18 AM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


One thing that has been sad to me about growing up is the loss of my need to code-switch.

When I was a child, I would regularly converse with my elderly, deep-Southern relatives in the regional vernacular. As I've aged and migrated to different social spheres, I've learned to speak a nice, bland, anonymous, generic American English.

The funny thing to me is the degree to which the old vocabulary and grammar from the vernacular remain in my brain, but never come to mind. Unless I sat and concentrated, I would never think to speak naturally the way that my grandmother spoke naturally, and the way that I naturally spoke with her.

So as more of those people from my childhood pass away, the likelihood of speaking our shared vernacular diminishes. When something does trigger the memory, it just seems like a poignant nostalgia now.

Someone asked me recently to "tump over that thar buggy" and I got misty-eyed. I can only hear that now as something my Gramma would have said.
posted by jefficator at 8:19 AM on October 22, 2010 [11 favorites]


I'll grant that, whether rightly or wrongly, african-americans "code-switching" (nice term that I hadn't heard before, so cool!) between black street culture and white middle-class culture is a challenge, and failure to do so is an impediment to their success. But don't we ask almost everyone to do this in one way or another, regardless of their race or class or situation?

For example, isn't every soldier who's ever returned from war required to code switch away from a pretty inflexible mindset that kept them alive on the battlefield because it's very likely to get them killed back home?

Doesn't every college freshman do something like this instinctively?

I in no way mean to challenge the point of this very interesting post which I like. I'm just suggesting that this kind of thing is broader than that, that it's part of the basic human experience, we do it all the time, and those who are most adept at it are usually the most successful in life.
posted by Naberius at 8:20 AM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


griphus, I guess I really don't know what the phrase " adapt to others' privilege" means. The only reason other people don't need to "code switch" to a certain norm is because someone else did it a generation before. I guess I view it like playing a board game: someone hands you a list of simple "rules," and you realize, "all I have to do is follow these rules, and I can play the game."

I guess one of the things that Coates confronted was that it's hard to consistently play by one set of rules when you grew up in a place where another set of rules was rewarded, but certain things aren't that demanding-- if anything we should look at ourselves and ask why we tolerate a situation where "the rules of the streets" are allowed to exist, sucking people into their vortex, when this turns out to be a big economic barrier later in life.
posted by deanc at 8:26 AM on October 22, 2010


jefficator, you should seriously consider volunteering in an "Adopt a Grandparent"-type program.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:31 AM on October 22, 2010


But doesn't TV expose them to a "middle class" style of language every day? I think it would be more a case of knowing the language, but not having a reason or desire to switch to it.

I'm a middle-class white American and I can understand AAVE perfectly, but I can't speak it myself. In a multilingual environment, receptive control of a second language is usually easier to acquire than productive control.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 8:33 AM on October 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


In schools in Pakistan, there is an ongoing debate about whether everyone should be taught in English-medium schools because of the advantages knowledge of English can give you, or whether kids should be taught in the languages in which they are most fluent.

It's a complicated debate, because on the one hand the power of the elite is wielded in part through their mastery of English. Command over English, and the accent in which you speak it, are swift markers of socioeconomic class. On the other hand, if you're going to school in a language that you don't really understand, and being taught by teachers who don't have a firm command over the language, then not only do you lose much of the social advantage, but you also end up with much less benefit from school-learning, in general. e.g. you don't understand basic mathematical, scientific, geographical concepts, because you couldn't understand the language in which they were being taught.

In terms of code-switching, this means that private schools (and there are lots of low and middle-income private schools) vary tremendously in their language policy. Most teachers at the elite schools will comfortably switch back and forth between English and Urdu or Punjabi (I'm sure the same is true for other regional languages, I'm just talking about the ones from the region I was living in), depending on which language the concepts can best be handled in, whereas in the middle-income schools, teachers will be under strict orders to speak only in English. Students might even be admonished, punished, or fined for speaking in a language other than English.

I found code-switching invaluable as a teaching tool, even when teaching Shakespeare, perhaps especially then. Elizabethan English is a far cry from anything most of my students had ever encountered, so often, the easiest way to capture the tone of a line was to translate into their vernacular. Sometimes this would be English, sometimes Urdu.

There's a lengthy comment in one of the links quoting David Foster Wallace's spiel to students about teaching them Standard Written English, because of the socioeconomic disadvantages associated with not mastering it.

That was pretty much the position I took with my students in expository writing. While we may feel like it's unfair to kids that they should have to master the dialect of the dominant class, that's just the reality of any society. The disadvantages that accrue from not being fluent are too huge.

In the history of the subcontinent, this has been an issue "forever and ever" but notably during Muslim rule and the British Raj. The language of the Muslim courts was Persian, so anyone who wanted to get anywhere learned Persian. Sanskrit remained the domain of the Brahmin, and Prakrit got sidelined. When the British took over, a big dividing factor in the Muslim community was whether or not to suck it up and learn English. By and large, there were more Hindus who were willing to do so, and by the time a significant portion of the Muslim upper class had decided that they would acknowledge that the British were in fact ruling India, they had lost the opportunity to become a part of the establishment. This in turn, had huge repercussions at the time of Partition, but I won't get into that here.

Similar processes take place, I would imagine, whenever there is any kind of dominant class. While those of us who care about social justice may cringe at the idea of kowtowing to the privileged, the reality is that need to recognize that the cause of social justice is better served by helping the underprivileged access the tools that are used to maintain privilege while we continue to work at "unpacking the knapsack."
posted by bardophile at 8:33 AM on October 22, 2010 [20 favorites]


Socialization seems to be a bad word in education circles. But being socialized into the middle class is probably more important to getting out of poverty than being able to write a good essay about Catcher in the Rye. It would be nice if the American middle class were open and accepting of all cultures regardless of class connotations, but the truth is ANY demographic group is going to have an associated culture and joining that group means adopting, at least to a certain extent, the culture of that group. I certainly couldn't be accepted into the working-class culture of my home town (Athens, Georgia) without picking up a lot of vernacular.
posted by keratacon at 8:34 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


My Fair Lady aka Pygmalion
posted by The Lady is a designer at 8:34 AM on October 22, 2010


Bill Clinton is exceptionally good in this regard.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:34 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


(not trying to be pedantic, but just laying out my thoughts on this)

Language is a tool to obtain security through what I want from you, and it's also an opportunity for you to detect passive traits about me. Language can be an important class signifier. Class is a relative (in no way absolute) shorthand for not only how comfortable I am with you, but how my relationship with you reflects on me among my class, and whether any of this may be a threat or help to my security. Notice I haven't said anything about race or culture. I feel (I'm not a scientist) that race and culture are really just tags we use, but in the back of our minds, we're thinking about class.

So is code switching denying your class or is it just a way to get ahead in a class that will bring some kind of sought after security?

Well, it's obviously both. The short answer is go give your grandma a kiss and do what's right for you. I'd pick security.

But, to really answer this, let me just say that there's a good chance that your class and my class will change in ways that will make us irrelevant and quaint in the next hundred years. I definitely won't go as far to say that race will go away, but majority and minority status will most certainly change ratios, and families of the future will probably have good times talking about who has a little bit more white or black in her, and beyond that, will NOT GIVE A SHIT about blood-soaked histories, 400 years of slavery, what an Aryan really is, or whether it's really a Chinese restaurant if Mexicans are working in the back.

I don't want to belittle these issues, but, you know... it gets better.
posted by hanoixan at 8:35 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


But don't we ask almost everyone to do this in one way or another, regardless of their race or class or situation?

Not quite. Your examples refer to jobs or higher education- choices that people walk into. You don't "choose" where you'll be born or the general language usage of that place - meaning, you may have decades of language formation you're working against.

Although it's commonly spoken about for AAVE, it's also applicable to 2nd, and 3rd generation immigrants - "Chinglish", "Spanglish", "Pidgin", etc. You grow up in a neighborhood where everyone uses the same language bits, and, in fact, because you may have a lot of people who only have partial English, it IS the most effective method of communication to do daily things like get groceries, talk to patients, etc.

It really does become invisible to you.

For example, when I moved up to Canada in the 90's for school- people kept making fun of me because I used the word "Hella", which, they assumed only existed on South Park, as it was the only place they've ever seen the word used. It would come out naturally, and it took me months to figure out why everyone kept saying, "Why are you talking like Cartman?" because they didn't recognize that it was, indeed, a word being used by actual people.

As pointed out above- code-switching doesn't fly equal in all directions. If you don't give dap at a hiphop show, people might think you're a little weird, which is totally not like Michelle & Barack Obama giving dap to be labelled "Terrorist Fist Jab".
posted by yeloson at 8:36 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


...someone hands you a list of simple "rules," and you realize, "all I have to do is follow these rules, and I can play the game."

Sure, but when some players grow up learning and playing by the rules their entire life and others, due to no fault of their own play by rules that are not only different but contemptuous to those other players and the rule-makers, they have to adapt not just to rules, but the privilege of the individuals making/growing up under the rules.

It's not a "vortex" they have been "sucked" into. It's their culture, and their parents' culture and so on and so forth until you go back to the time when their ancestors were forcibly dragged here on slaveships and kept legally separate from the privileged until the Civil Rights era hundreds of years later. And that's just legally. Socially and economically the nation is still segregated. We can't just discard hundreds of years of cultural development because it doesn't fit in with the privileged one.

Like I said, it's a very complicated situation that can't be easily summarized as a "game" with "rules". We have long been acknowledging that forced assimilation is not a good thing for anyone. That's why, for instance, we don't use the "melting pot" metaphor anymore.
posted by griphus at 8:36 AM on October 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


At a more personal level, I find myself code switching constantly - I speak differently with my American friends, differently with my English-speaking Pakistani friends, differently yet again with my largely Urdu-speaking elders, and then yet again with my cousins who are more fluent in English than my elders, but not as fluent as I am. So the accent and vocabulary changes for each of those groups. Sometimes, if there are members of more than one of those groups present in the same room, the effect can be quite comical.
posted by bardophile at 8:37 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


My Fair Lady aka Pygmalion
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:34 AM on October 22 [+] [!] No other comments.


"If she can imitate French, she can imitate English!"
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:47 AM on October 22, 2010


To add to bardophile's thought, code switching lowers the barriers to acceptance within the group or community, and can be a skill thats often developed by those with highly mobile childhoods or simply today's global citizens. I code switch between propah English, plain old American, slightly different Euro/Nordic variations, Singlish, hinglish or simply "downgrading" the quality all depending where and to whom I was talking to. Most fascinating was discovering New Delhi English worked best in Nairobi, Kenya
posted by The Lady is a designer at 8:47 AM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


More from Coates.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:48 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always get weirded out with non-African Americans speak AAVE. I think nearly all of them must be posers, but in my town neighborhoods are integrated enough that it makes me certain at least some are just talking the neighborhood dialect without regard for race.

This reminds me of an acquintance-of-an-acquintance hairdresser in my town from the (now former) Netherlands Antilles. Virtually everyone here who speaks Dutch the way he does, with the characteristic accent associated with the region, is black. But he's not.

Most Dutch people know that there are white people in the Antilles, and from this it logically follows that there will probably be white children growing up there, and thus white people who speak Dutch with an Antillian accent. And if these people exist, it is possible that some of them will at one point migrate to the Netherlands.

But they are just so exceedingly rare here that when meeting him most people seem to assume that he's taking the piss or, when they realize he always speaks that way, that he's posing.

Because the accent is so closely associated (and, in truth, closely correlated) with ethnicity, part of me, too, still finds it completely bewildering every time I meet him, even a bit hilarious. I can't help it: it's just so out of place.

But I imagine it must be very frustrating for him.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:55 AM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


*acquaintance
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:57 AM on October 22, 2010


There are, of course, more codes then AAVE. I swear the key to my ability to be social is unconscious code shifting. As a result, I've been comfortable in a big range of social settings, and if I visit my Mom - bam totally different accent, vocab, etc.

Oddly enough this really annoys my BF. He thinks it's fake, or an act, or i'm becoming this totally different person and this upsets him. I don't know why I'm so at ease with it I don't even notice when I'm doing it and he thinks it's bizarre, but I suspect it's cause I have to travel in a range of social contexts and situations and he pretty much never leaves his.
posted by The Whelk at 9:01 AM on October 22, 2010


It's not a "vortex" they have been "sucked" into. It's their culture

Re-read the Coates essay where his natural reaction is to put himself in a situation where he might deck one of his detractors (and I totally understand his reaction!), which would end up fucking him up professionally. Are you going to chalk this up to, "this is their culture," or are you going to say, "he got sucked into a vortex of messed-up expectations which might have limited his professional opportunities." ? I think that the latter is a much less patronizing belief.

Really, the USA is a nation state, like many others. We grant many freedoms that we don't force anyone to conform to: we are free to choose and maintain our ethnic identifications and religions without anyone giving us the stink eye, to name two. But to make a simple effort to help people follow cultural/public "rules" that allow access to economic opportunities, well, that's what everyone who comes to this country does. It does, of course, depend on what you want, and it's not in the least bit patronizing because we tell people, "anyone can do this," which is a much better message than, "your culture means that you will never be able to get out of the place you're in."

I always kind of resented some people who had a certain paranoia about not wanting to be mistaken for working class, but in a sense I was the privileged one for silently mocking their insecurity and "code switching": because I had the privilege to dress and partake in activities that I wanted without having to worry about how I might be perceived. And even more than that I have that freedom because previous generations were willing to do that and because I was able to adopt/keep certain cultural habits (honestly, it came down to language) that gave me a "pass" on the other ones. When we ask "why can't people just not have to code switch?" we are, in a sense, reflecting our own privilege where we take our freedoms for granted.

I think you'll find that if you're genuinely interested in preserving, rather than assimilating/annihilating the culture of the people you're dealing with, the answer would be to make sure that they access access to economic opportunities and ability to adopt the habits/norms/education that gives them the capital/privileges to do so. Feeling guilty that "I have the privilege not to have to worry about adopting gatekeeper norms so I worry about helping others do the same" isn't the answer.
posted by deanc at 9:03 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


This gave me a lot of problems in high school. I transitioned from an environment where lightly roughing each other up was normal conflict resolution, to one where pummelling landed me in the office. I remember one distinct instance where a peer shoved against me to disrupt my cleaning of the art room tables and proceeded to smear fresh wet clay on the surface I'd just polished.

I responded by digging my nails into his arm, hard, escalating the conflict to be clear I would follow up with lacerations if he pushed the issue or touched me again. This landed me in the office with a glowering vice-principal summing up the situation that I had "Asserted my feminine right to stick my claws in".

In hindsight I wish 14 year old me had the social awareness enough to say "Sir, I was unaware that my actions were in violation of the current protocol, and I will see the incident is not repeated."

A year ago my teachers would have been happy I resolved the conflict without involving them, so the response of the new authority was incomprehensible.

On the other hand, in my fancy, higher level classes, violence was unheard of escalation. My peers at that level would tell me how cruel the upper class and upper-middle class students were with their cutting remarks and I would find it completely bland. Nobody was getting punched or pummelled.

I am no bad ass, in fact I'm an anxious, cowering sook, but when I ended a game of keep away by pushing someone over the desk with their arm behind their back, his genuinely frightened response surprised me. True, I was a girl, but on the other hand I think this was the first time anyone had threatened him with bodily harm. Tell one of the boys from my middle school that you could have broken their arm if you wanted to, assuming their honour was not impinged enough to try for a second attack, they'd have taken it in stride.
posted by Phalene at 9:14 AM on October 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


An overthought minor derail in response to deanc's enlightened and articulate comment, I'd like to feel comfortable enough on the blue to say something openly - the British have been having trouble with this issue in so many ways of late its becoming quite obvious. I mean in the global sense, with the shifts taking place socioeconomically and geopolitically, and (more bla bla not relevant here but happy to follow up etc) so there's been a lot of rubbish in the mainstream media such as radio (BBC 4 etc) and print about "should we in fact still be giving India aid money when they're um rich enough to buy up half our industries?" or "we shouldn't have taught them English, they're taking our call centre jobs away" or whatever... and I've seen variations of this theme in more than one continent and numerous former colonies as well as very obvious touchiness from those straight from Ol Blighty, like the former journo who was moderating the closing plenary panel last week at a global conference who kept referring to me as either "girl" or "techie".

Whatevah. The pounds dropped below the euro now anyway...
posted by The Lady is a designer at 9:29 AM on October 22, 2010


I can only imagine the number of dialects known and used by my next-door neighbor. He's black and from the rural south, his parents are academics that worked themselves out of relative poverty, he was educated in both traditionally black colleges and the ivy league, worked on Wall Street and is now living in Washington, DC in a mostly middle-class black neighborhood, and working in the financial industry.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:37 AM on October 22, 2010


Code switching isn't just about language, it is also about culture. I live in a neighbourhood that has a lot of poor and working poor Blacks. The cultural expectation is that folks will always take the time to say hi, even to strangers, and probably chat a bit.

I was raised in white, middle class suburbs where talking to strangers was thought to lead to kidnapping, rape and perhaps murder.

When I'm in my neighbourhood, I sit on my stoop and talk with everyone. I offer extra food to neighbours (and they'll offer theirs to me), help out with figuring out a bus route or which library branch has the best computer aides that might actually help someone type a resume. Sometimes, I do this with complete strangers. I call folks "sweetie," "baby" and other terms of endearment.

When I'm at work or in white neighbourhoods, I look through strangers, don't jump in to conversations, don't share what I have with anyone around and, if I do talk with someone, call them "sir" or "ma'am."

Both codes say different things, but both say that I belong where I am at the moment.
posted by QIbHom at 9:43 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Code switching has caused me a lot of problems. I'm a Puerto Rican from Brooklyn who doesn't speak Spanish fluently (but understands it) and an 80's baby who grew up on hip hop. Anyone who straddles different cultures, whether linguistically or culturally, knows that you can't really win. In my case, I was trying to be white, trying to be black, or ashamed of being Puerto Rican. Just because of the way I talk.

I've learned to really love language and how all different people use it but it has definitely caused me angst. These days I just roll with it. I find that I'm able to incorporate all aspects of the different vernaculars into everyday life whether I'm at work, or visiting family or whatever. My boyfriend thinks it's fake too and other people will think this. In reality, I think that most people who code switch are more adaptive than those who can not. I have cousins who can not turn it off and unfortunately I think it's detrimental.
posted by mokeydraws at 9:55 AM on October 22, 2010


Code switching isn't just about language, it is also about culture. I live in a neighbourhood that has a lot of poor and working poor Blacks. The cultural expectation is that folks will always take the time to say hi, even to strangers, and probably chat a bit.

I don't think we need the term "code switching" to apply to this, though. Lots of us act in different ways around different people because it helps us get along or our experiences are more enjoyable if we abide by the social rules of the context. We call this "etiquette," and in the context of different ethnic groups, we call it "culture."

"Code switching" exists, but it's not a catch-all for every time we act differently around different people in different places.
posted by deanc at 10:09 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a little surprised not to see any mention of Basil Bernstein in this discussion. His notion of restricted and elaborated codes seems apropos.
posted by blacksmithtb at 10:15 AM on October 22, 2010


But body language, etc. really *are* a part of code switching. Try talking in one code while fronting a different kind body language. It will be confusing to the people you're talking to. All that cultural stuff is a part of language. Language isn't just the words we use.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:16 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Language isn't just the words we use.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 10:36 AM on October 22, 2010


Are you going to chalk this up to, "this is their culture," or are you going to say, "he got sucked into a vortex of messed-up expectations which might have limited his professional opportunities."?

Messed-up by what standard? Well, by the standard of mainstream middle-class American culture, of course. They're messed-up in the culture of the privileged class. "Messed-up" here means, mostly, "alien to the sensibilities of the privileged." Conflict resolution by direct confrontation is not usual in middle- and upper-class American society, but it is more common in disadvantaged communities.

So maybe it's true, in a sense, that "he got sucked into a vortex of messed-up expectations," but it's also true -- and, I think, true in a broader sense -- that the problem with the interaction Coates describes is that he found himself applying the standards of his native culture in an environment in which those standards aren't the norm.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 10:53 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


magnificent insight

that the problem with the interaction Coates describes is that he found himself applying the standards of his native culture in an environment in which those standards aren't the norm.

One of the hardest things to become aware of and even harder, when the cross cultural behaviour/action/expectation creates pain but one must stay conscious and aware that its not a personal thing
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:34 AM on October 22, 2010


I don't think we need the term "code switching" to apply to this, though.

I agree… the term is finding a lot of mixed-usage here based on a lot of ignorance of linguistic terminology. Which is kind-of ironic, actually.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:18 PM on October 22, 2010


Given that I code switch all the time (friends, other friends, Internet friends, work, girlfriend, family, tech-support, development) I'm pretty suprised that anyone considers this as something other people do.

I suppose you could make the argument that the switch is more noticable between racial groups but that's just a reflection of the racial segregation that goes on. Not interesting as anything but one extra data point in the mess of data points proving we're all racist motherfuckers.
posted by seanyboy at 12:22 PM on October 22, 2010


TNC makes it clear in his article that he is talking about cultural stuff, too, when he talks about code switching. Yes, it is a linguistics term, but I'm willing to broaden it to include the cultural stuff that informs and influences language.
posted by QIbHom at 12:52 PM on October 22, 2010


This is getting ridiculous - if we define "code switching" to be "any time I act differently with two different people" (like seanyboy wants to do), then it's a meaningless term.

Code switching, to linguists: the concurrent use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation.

Code switching, more informally: a relatively stable informal mixture of two languages.

Code switching, even more informally: switching among dialects, styles or registers, such as that practiced by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings.

You treat your girlfriend differently than your boss because you have a different relationship to each of them. It has nothing to do with code-switching. That's just plain old interpersonal dynamics.
posted by muddgirl at 1:04 PM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


You treat your girlfriend differently than your boss because you have a different relationship to each of them. It has nothing to do with code-switching. That's just plain old interpersonal dynamics.

For some of us, code-switching does, in fact, take place depending on our relationship with the person in question. I'm not sure whether seanyboy is talking about that, though. I explained how it works for me in my previous comment. It's very much a question of all three kinds of code-switching, as you have defined them.
posted by bardophile at 1:25 PM on October 22, 2010


Oh, and for some people it's quite pronounced. I know at least two people who spoke to their mother in Urdu, but their father in English. So the reason for the code switching is interpersonal dynamics, but it's still code switching.
posted by bardophile at 1:27 PM on October 22, 2010


It seems to me to be a circular argument since all communication, in a sense, is interpersonal dynamics.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 1:32 PM on October 22, 2010


It seems to me to be a circular argument since all communication, in a sense, is interpersonal dynamics.

Well sure, code-switching may occur with different people based on interpersonal dynamics.

Here's an example of what I see as the difference:

Then-Governor Bush, who attended private schools on the East Coast from a very young age through graduation, gives a speech in front of a farm organization in Texas where he employs local grammar like "y'all", with a heavy Texan accent. He gives the same speech in front of a farm organization in Idaho where he does not employ texan grammar and has no particularly unique accent.

His relationship to each group is, on the face of it, exactly the same.
posted by muddgirl at 1:39 PM on October 22, 2010


When I deal with my boss differently than my husband, I do not utilize unique grammars or dialects. I am changing my behavior, but I am not necessarily code-switching.
posted by muddgirl at 1:42 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Otoh, one could code switch as in seanyboy's example, if you needed to talk in "business" to the boss, "engineering" to the coders and "design" to the UI folks..
posted by The Lady is a designer at 1:46 PM on October 22, 2010


Poor whites have problems code switching, too. It's an education problem. You can't speak in someone else's language if you don't know it.

As a Mississippian in Massachusetts, I code-switch all the time. It's an unconscious response -- first I had to flatten my vowels so that people here could understand me, and then when I was talking to family or old friends, I could quit trying. Now I know and expect it.

I know very well, however, that when I speak in my natural accent, it does not have the social disadvantage that other dialects, like AAVE, can have. Sure, some people may think I'm stupid, or that I think the earth is six thousand years old, because I tend to pronounce "finger" with a broad "a"; let them. I benefit in other ways. There's an equally strong tradition of rural American accents representing down-home shrewdness, charm, and jes' plain folks in a way that American listeners find endearing and refreshing. Bill Clinton's voice didn't hurt him one bit, and you can be certain that Sarah Palin plays up those irritating mannerisms of hers. My vowels don't hurt me none.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:21 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do wish I'd known about code-switching in college. Many of my fellow students spoke AAVE. I remember a class where I had to explain that, yes, the subtitles in Boyz in the Hood really were necessary for some people. In fact, I had been one of those people. (As a middle class white girl, I wasn't expected to speak AAVE, but as a student at that college, I was expected to understand it. I had to do a fair amount of guessing from context the first few months until I picked it up.) Despite my major (math), I was recruited by the student tutoring program to help with essay writing, since I was fluent in SWE. If I'd had the concept of code-switching, I think I'd have been able to do a better job.
posted by Karmakaze at 5:54 PM on October 22, 2010


Working on the fringes of "Writing Across the Curriculum" programs, I see the challenge in convince professors that they need to help students code switch as they move from discipline to discipline during the course of the day: help them realize that different codes are at work in history, physics, what have you ... and that learning "academic writing" in one semester freshman year isn't going to suffice.

On a completely different matter, it is worth noting the gender aspect here. Working class women have been shown to be, on average, more willing than working class men to switch to mainstream codes. Male pride, unwillingness to ask for help, resentment of more prestigious fellow guys, the types of jobs typically available to men ... all the reasons you might suspect.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 8:37 PM on October 22, 2010


Code switching is nothing new. Du Bois laid it out in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk with double consciousness. Did I miss a mention of him in the articles referenced?

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn't bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

And I'm sure he's not even the first one to discuss it.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:15 PM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


The big problem for people who can't code-switch OR who are not born into speaking "privileged English" is that they are unemployable for most better paying jobs. I can't hire someone who says "ain't" on the phone for a sales position. I might really WANT to hire them, but I can't.
posted by jfwlucy at 12:22 PM on October 23, 2010


When I deal with my boss differently than my husband, I do not utilize unique grammars or dialects. I am changing my behavior, but I am not necessarily code-switching.
posted by muddgirl at 4:42 PM on October 22 [1 favorite +] [!] Other [4/4]: «≡·


yes that is a related/overlapping kind of linguistic negotiation known as register-switching
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:26 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


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