Code-switching Is Not Cultural Oppression

By Maeve Maddox

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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.

Never assume.

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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6 Responses to “Code-switching Is Not Cultural Oppression”

  • ApK

    I am immensely gratified to see DWT state this position. Please be aware that you may have now doomed DWT to be demonized as a racist, white supremacist publisher of hate speech. I’ll miss you if you get cancelled.

  • Cesar

    Language is by everyone, for everyone.

    There is nothing wrong with teaching students of any race proper, standard English. It’s standard not because a few people said it was, it’s standard because society accepted it as such to communicate clearly and properly with each other in a common ground.

    And yes, dialects appear the same way too, since they are natural conventions that establish in sections of society. But trying to enforce dialects on people as a standard is the opposite of this natural process. I really can’t think of a better word to describe i than, well, oppressive!

    And claiming that English–or for that matter science, or math, or any other subject–is wrong to teach because “it’s mainstream” or “the norm” is one of the most bone-headed things ever said.

  • Maeve

    ApK,
    Qui sabe? We live in very strange times.

  • Mary

    Ok, so “Standard” English…

    Who gets to decide WHAT standard English is? Who gets to decide which dialect is standardized? THAT is where racism and classism comes in, and it’s a fair question to ask.

    I’m a little disappointed to see DWT take such a dismissive stance. I’m not convinced that it’s right to adopt 24 separate dialects. Nor am I convinced that Standard English, as it now stands, is the best representation of our diverse nation, either at home or abroad. It may be reasonable to consider addressing some of the “misogynistic” tones in our every day language. Not to mention the built-in racism and classism. It is perfectly reasonable to question and challenge our “standard,” and perhaps, with some careful study, replace it with something new.

  • Maeve

    ApK and Mary,
    First, I need to point out that I am not DWT. I am a contributor and my views are not necessarily those of the site owner.

    Mary raises some interesting points. I may address them in a future post about standard American English.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • Kristen

    Dear Maeve,

    Perhaps learning a little more about linguistic racism might help you understand CCCC’s statement and demands. Vershawn Ashanti Young’s and Asao Inoue’s work are great places to start. Instead of dismissing language equity as another divisive issue, you might ask how SAE fails to act as a mode of equitable democratic engagement (especially when it is used as a way to punish and ostracize those who cannot speak or write it well). Yes, misogyny and racism are imbedded in SAE. Yes, code-switching (or, more accurately, code-meshing) is one way to counter those ills.

    Code-switching is not a threat to whatever notion of linguistic integrity prompted this post. Rather, it is a way to ensure that English IS democratic, that it reckons with its history, and that we recognize its fluidity and its ability to draw from different ways of speaking and writing for a richer, more capacious way of creating meaning and understanding.

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