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To Code-Switch, or Not to Code-Switch?

By Tannin Arceo

My relationship with my father has always been… complex. He reveres masculinity, capital, and a deep voice. Yet, his kid is a queer nonbinary socialist whose words often come out noticeably tinny. I remember trying to have conversations with him during my adolescence where I could tell that I was not getting through to him. That my words did not truly make him ponder or rethink his ways. He was open to discussing politics, or ethics, but I could not get him to see that the two were so deeply intertwined. That is until I understood what he revered and how to use it against him. My natural or at rest way of speaking would not reach him, so instead I would slightly deepen my voice, stand up straighter, choose my words carefully, do everything that I could to signal that I deserved his respect, and then present my case. And guess what? He started to listen, really listen. Now I feel that when we speak, he sees me as an equal, regardless of how I say it. Yet, I wonder, had I never forcibly changed my speech habits back then, would he still view me the same? It seems that a self-conscious adjustment of language used to psychologically resonate with others can pass on the true inner workings of our own mind, which is undoubtedly a form of self-empowerment.

A self-conscious adjustment of language depending on our audience is where people, especially marginalised ones, begin to reclaim their voice. That term “self– conscious” is the key here. Typically, it may have negative connotations, but in this case, it simply means to be aware of how you are changing how you speak. Another term for adjusting our language depending on our audience is code-switching. In the article “The Overwhelming Nature of Code-Switching” by Matthew Salesses (2016), he says, “Often we code-switch in an effort to fit expectations, whether consciously or unconsciously — an athlete speaking differently on-court than in a press conference, or a job applicant trying to sound more professional for an interview”. You probably talk more relaxed around your friends, maybe even curse and nonchalantly use expletives around them. But with your grandmother or a random older stranger, you likely try to keep the swearing to a minimum so that they don’t get offended. That difference of adjusting your language depending on your audience is what is called code-switching. So, in this quote, Salesses offers a couple examples of when people are likely to code-switch, but he also makes the distinction: “whether consciously or unconsciously”. This discrepancy is small but exceptionally important. For one, to be unconscious of their code-switching means that they have fallen victim to the social pressures or anxieties that burden many of us. Or they were never given the tools to be aware of their code-switching in the first place. So, to be conscious of one’s code-switching, is a sign of intent. It is the first step in getting people to hear exactly what it is that you are trying to say. With the power of self-conscious code-switching, we can psychologically resonate with others in a way that was unattainable before. In the United States there is much importance placed on the English language. However, not just English, but a certain dialect of it. The version used in most of the books we read and the

version that is hammered into us in school. Despite this nation being so vast and breeding forth many different versions of English, only one is regarded as the “standard” version. In June Jordan’s piece, “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan”(1988), she remarks on the language used by her previous student, Willie Jordan, “I knew his intelligence was outstanding. But he’d wholeheartedly opted for ‘Standard English’ at a rather late age, and the results were stilted and frequently polysyllabic, simply for the sake of having more syllables” (p.366). She notes that Willie Jordan had intelligence, outstanding intelligence in fact. While I am sure he could get his point across with whichever version of English he used regularly, it seemed he did not have finesse with “Standard English” and so his efforts lacked the underlying force to reach a wider audience. Yet, at the end of her piece, after a semester of work and effort by Willie, she asked him to write an essay. The last paragraph of which reads: “After experiencing a situation like this and researching South Africa I believe that to a large degree, justice may only exist as rhetoric. I find it difficult to talk of true justice when the oppression of my people both at home and abroad attests to the fact that inequality and injustice are serious problems whereby Blacks and Third World people are perpetually short-changed by society. Something has to be done about the way in which this world is set up. Although it is a difficult task, we do have the power to make a change” (p.374).

“A self-conscious adjustment of language depending on our audience is where people, especially marginalised ones, begin to reclaim their voice”


Unmistakably written in “Standard English”, Willie Jordan writes this after researching about the wrongdoings in South Africa as well as after having lost his brother to police brutality, noting the inequalities and injustices of this world which have been so unfairly dropped on his life, as well as many others. This essay from Willie Jordan is placed at the very end of June Jordan’s piece, leading me to believe she also thought this essay was both impactful and moving, and wanted to leave the reader with his words in mind. While Willie Jordan shouldn’t have been forced to wield “Standard English” in order for his words to carry more weight, this essay showcases just how powerful code-switching can be. Beautiful and somber at the same time, Willie Jordan’s essay is an example of how conscious code-switching can be used to resonate with people who may not have had the fluency to understand what he was trying to say before. But, can code-switching do even more than help us resonate with others?

Self-conscious code-switching is perhaps the best tool we have to pass forth the true inner workings of our own mind. Human’s hate when they fail to be understood. Have you ever said something, a word or phrase, to someone, and they ask you to repeat it again, and then again, and then again? Until you eventually give up and reside to knowing that what you were trying to say did not leave any sort of mark on their brain. Yet sometimes, it’s not a lack of hearing, but a refusal to listen, that results in us not being heard. I can say something clear as day and know that what I am saying is not illogical or too complicated, yet some people reject my words as though they are a foreign language. And it is not because what I am saying that makes no sense to them, it is how I am saying it. I once got into a bit of a heated discussion with a family friend. A bald, middle- man who I’ve known for over a decade now. We were a few drinks in and I was lax, my posture at ease and my voice at its normal pitch, which is perhaps higher than the average male-bodied persons. He was offering me guidance, as elders often do, so I initially lent him my ear. But, when I started to piece together what he was actually saying, his advice could be summed up as: “You should be successful at any cost and use other people before they use you”. It may go without saying, but I was appalled. I refused to accept that that is how I should live my life and stated that I can be both successful and ethical at the same time. But, because of my drunken state, my voice was shaking, and I started to feel small. I couldn’t state my true thoughts, or even if I did, he always had some retort lined up, ready to laugh off my dreams of equity. So, I took a deep breath and remembered what my voice, body, and mind, are capable of doing. I straightened my shoulders, lowered my voice, looked him directly in the eyes and said, “If you think that is how you should live life, go ahead, but I am sorry for you”. Those words may have hurt him slightly, maybe the alcohol aided the pain, but I still stand by them. In that instance my self-conscious code-switching got through to him and conveyed exactly what I was trying to say, impactful enough to leave him without any response. It wasn’t simply changing how I spoke to help him better understand me, it was my most pure and honest thought, demonstrated with both words and body. I walked away, angry and shocked he would give me such advice, but still, what I had done left me feeling undoubtedly more empowered than if I had not code-switched right then and there.

“With the power of self-conscious code-switching, we can psychologically resonate with others in a way that was unattainable before”

Code-switching can undeniably be a response to the psychological minefield that this world puts us in. It can be a safety net for some people, providing protection where they may otherwise be subject to insult or injury. Those people either don’t know they are code- switching or must do it for their safety. For those of us who can self-consciously code-switch, it can be a huge burden. Like pretending to be more masculine than you are naturally; it can feel like you’re going back into your shell, and no one wants to do that. However, we also cannot undermine the power and control that self-conscious code-switching can offer us as we navigate life. If I can teach someone to understand why certain people use different pronouns and I have to code-switch for them to truly understand me, I am going to do it. I recognise that my ability to code-switch can be used to help educate people on facets of identity that they perhaps didn’t understand previously, it can be used to bridge the gap between people of wildly different backgrounds, and there’s power in that. Still, even with all of this, I long for a world where code-switching is completely unnecessary, conscious or not.








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