Education

A perplexing letter ignites a conversation about code switching

Is the upset that code-switching is considered wrong? Is it the use of the term “standard English” that is offensive? Is it the expectation that students must switch their speech? I don’t ask these questions out of ignorance. I ask to hear what the upset is explicit.

By Contributor Toneille Bent

I am a Black, Jamaican-born, former Spanish teacher, granddaughter of preachers and daughter of a mother who was and is a strong proponent of speaking “proper English” in various settings. That “proper English” does not, in her mind, include even Jamaican Patois, which she uses regularly in certain places – which did not include her workplace when she was in the workforce. She and my father and entire family for that matter, code switch. Mainly because they know folks won’t understand them if they walk upon the scene and say ‘Waap’n?’ for example, instead of “Hi, what’s going on?”

My late grandfather, who was coal black, a pastor as mentioned, raised on the island, and very much NOT a perpetrator of any sort of systems of oppression would check me hard if I spoke a certain way. Neither he nor any of my grandparents used what we would call ‘flat’ Jamaican Patois or slang. They were all black people. Their generation and social class tended not to use that speech.

Now, all of that said, as a former language teacher, immigrant, polyglot, and lover of languages, I used to teach my students about code-switching, but I did NOT tell them any particular form of speech was better than the other. I told them about being able to adjust their language as needed for various settings. I stand by that.

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As a professional, now a director with a national education non-profit, I must know my audience and adjust accordingly. None of that means I buy into a system of oppression. It means I use the skills I have as a multilingual person. I do not tout one form of language as ‘better’ than the other. I use the tools in my toolbox and I know when and where to do so. I appreciate the outrage but ask that you unpack for me the exact source.

Is it that the person put these thoughts on paper? Is it that “standard English” is seen as a veiled name for “white English”? Listen, some of the (black) elders who were educators before education left the ranks of honored professions were teaching your parents, grands, great grands, etc., this very notion. That one needs to speak “properly”. What might you tell them?

Read what the writer is saying and look beyond the offense to the intention and the logic. It stands to reason. People do react to particular forms of speech in particular ways. It isn’t always about black and white, for whites of particular regions and social classes have certain dialects that are not considered “standard English” either.

“Mi hope seh wah mi seh mek some sense to yu, an yu can see wah di intention of di writa’ could be.”

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Categories: Education, Opinion