Code-switching Is Not Cultural Oppression
Until recently, I thought that most English teachers shared my view that mastering a standard form of English is the acquisition of a desirable skill that is as much a basic of a general education as learning the four math functions. I never viewed acquiring a second dialect as a betrayal of one’s home dialect and cultural values.
Home dialects—and I speak one—are important and to be cherished, but the ability to code-switch the home dialect with Standard English is a marketable skill.
I assumed that an organization like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)— identifying itself as “the home for educators of English and language arts”—would be a supporter of Standard English as the vehicle of education, commerce, government, and diplomacy.
Several “groups” exist under the NCTE umbrella, one of which is the Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC). In 2020, the CCCC published a list of five “demands” related to African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), one of several dialects spoken in the United States. The first two of the demands left me speechless:
1. We demand [that] teachers stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm, which reflects White Mainstream English!
2. We demand [that] teachers stop teaching Black students to code-switch and teach Black students about anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy instead!
Note: The exclamation points are in the CCCC document.
My question about Demand One is, If we throw out the current standard English, which dialect is supposed to replace it for academic writing, education, government, commerce, diplomacy, etc.? According to some estimates, as many as twenty-four dialects are spoken in the United States. Do we replace one standard dialect with two dozen?
My question about Demand Two is, Why should only Black students be relieved of code-switching? Isn’t code-switching something every speaker of every language does every day?
Merriam-Webster defines code-switching as “the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the action of shifting between two or more languages, or between dialects or registers of a language, within a discourse, especially in response to a change in social context.
Calling Standard English “White Mainstream English” and suggesting that code-switching has something to do with promoting “anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy” reflects a stunning tunnel vision on the part of the demand-writers.
Depending upon one’s viewpoint, Standard English could also be called “White Male English.” Standard English is demonstrably misogynistic. What alternative dialect should women speakers adopt?
Language exists in a never-ending loop. It shapes the thinking of the people who grow up speaking it, but speakers also shape the language. If Standard English presently skews racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and ageist, the remedy lies with the speakers of Standard English.
Standard American English (SAE) belongs to all Americans. Don’t let’s turn it into one more symbol of national divisiveness. Sharing a standard mode of discourse is one of the most effective means of uniting the disparate elements of the population.
Instead of calling on English teachers to throw out our common dialect, let’s urge them instead to treat all dialects with respect and present the standard dialect as one of many—useful to learn, not because it is “right” and other dialects are “wrong,” but because it enables equality of discourse in a democratic society.
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