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Switchin’ It Up

Linguists sometimes get discouraged about the rampant prescriptivism in public discussions of language. This past week was no exception, as many of us watched with some dismay as both friends and strangers online delighted over Weird Al Yankovich’s new song “Word Crimes.” As this song showed yet again, it can take only the smallest spark to ignite a stream of invective about “abuses” in/to the language and about those who commit these perceived abuses.

There’s much to say about the attitudes and ideologies perpetuated by the song, but I’m not going to delve into it here. Lauren Squires has already said much of what I would say—and better—in her excellent guest post on Language Log, which provides a linguist’s thoughtful and pedagogically oriented response to the song and its reception. And Lucy Ferriss will talk more about the song in tomorrow’s Lingua Franca post.

Instead, I am going to switch it up and let my Pollyanna side take over this blog post. This seemed like a good moment to note a place where I think the public conversation is changing in some promising ways: the  conversation about code-switching.

Jamila Lyiscott’s powerful TED talk called “3 Ways to Speak English” hit the main TED site in mid-June, and it already has over 1.5 million views. In this four-and-a-half minute video, Lyiscott celebrates the three varieties of English that she controls, all important parts of her identity, and challenges the widely held ideology that links “being articulate” with speaking a standard variety of English. To be articulate, Lyiscott importantly reminds her audience, is to code-switch: to control multiple languages and/or varieties of a language and to move among them (sometimes intentionally and sometimes without realizing we’re doing it) as part of navigating different contexts and communities.

A student in my class this summer made sure I knew about this video on the first day of class, after I had gone over the syllabus and noted that we would be talking about code-switching. I was excited that she had already seen it—and seen it outside the context of a university classroom.

On the syllabus for this course (which is a first-year academic-success course, not a linguistics course), I included three pieces from NPR’s blog Code Switch, which started in April 2013. When I googled “code-switching” this week, the blog is the second site that comes up, and two of the pieces I assigned (“How Code-Switching Explains the World” and “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch”) pop up as sites three and four. In other words, this topic has jumped the boundaries of the realm of linguistics—and I think this is a really good thing for students and teachers, among others.

The first of these two posts from Code Switch launched the site. It explains how the creators are thinking about the term code-switching and includes several video clips to illustrate code-switching in action. Early on Gene Demby writes:

You’re looking at the launch of a new team covering race, ethnicity and culture at NPR. We decided to call this team Code Switch because much of what we’ll be exploring are the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. In one sense, code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures. It evokes the conversation we want to have here.

Linguists would probably quibble with our definition. (The term arose in linguistics specifically to refer to mixing languages and speech patterns in conversation.) But we’re looking at code-switching a little more broadly: many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We’re hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities—sometimes within a single interaction.

I have no quibble. Yes, when I’m teaching code-switching in an upper-level linguistics course, I will often differentiate between code-switching and style-shifting and get into other technical matters. But honestly, I think it is great to have a wider audience thinking about the ways that we all change our language in relation to different cultural and linguistic spaces and in relation to different parts of our identity in less technical ways. And if it helps to use code-switching as a broad umbrella term for all of that, let’s do it.

This summer I asked students to write part of their own code-switching story, just as Eric Deggans does in the blog post “Learning How to Code-Switch: Humbling but Necessary.” The students wrote powerful pieces that linked languages/language varieties to different aspects of their identities and highlighted their linguistic savvy as they navigate different spaces. The title of this post itself was inspired by the student who started his piece with more formal standard edited English and then wrote that sometimes it’s important to be switchin’ it up. (A colleague of mine in physics also successfully taught this unit on code-switching. I add this to say that you don’t need a degree in linguistics to facilitate this important conversation with students about linguistic diversity and identity.)

It’s exciting to me that code-switching is emerging as a less technical word that we can use in all kinds of classes to talk about our everyday experience with language in a way that legitimizes all the different language varieties that students bring with them to college, as well as the ones they will continue to develop in college. It also brings into focus the discerning knowledge students have about which of those varieties they choose to use in an educational context and which they reserve for other spaces and why. As we make some of that intuitive knowledge more explicit, we can then reflect together on the lifelong process of honing these linguistic tools and adding to our code-switching toolboxes—recognizing the cultural value of standard language varieties without letting that overshadow the cultural value of the many other varieties that students control.

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