Why Telling People Not to Code-Switch May Not Be as Woke as You Think

In recent years, posts have begun circulating on social media claiming to be uncovering the true nature of code-switching, the act of changing between languages or types of speech, urging people to stop the practice itself.

New discourse on this topic is occurring as people are tracing its origins to classist and racist practices. Oftentimes, people from developing countries use code-switching to be accepted into and succeed in Western cultures. For example, in the podcast We Ga Link, hosts Celine and Alicia discuss the use of code-switching in the Bahamas as a means for people to seek educational opportunities in the United States, Europe, and Canada.

The necessity of this practice is inherently racist, as what is perceived as “white” speech is considered the correct, educated form of speech that others must then adhere to. The practice is also classist, as private educational institutions emphasize this skill whereas students at government schools may not ever learn to code-switch.

Due to its racist and classist origins, these social media posts have been urging people to stop code-switching. One can argue, however, that code-switching remains a necessary skill in our society, one which has benefits people may not have considered.

Firstly, code-switching is a tool for easing communication, as it allows the speaker to be understood by the listener. The speaker may not want to explain everything they are saying should the listener not understand their native speech patterns, and code-switching alleviates this problem in communication.

Code-switching can also help the speaker feel less like an outsider when in a new social milieu. The ability to code-switch helps them assimilate to new situations and can help speakers feel more accepted into a new community.

Importantly, code-switching can also be a form of protection in gatekeeping one’s culture. When new vernacular is introduced to the public sphere there is always the possibility of it being appropriated. For example, many elements of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) have been appropriated as general internet slang, leading to terms from AAVE being wrongly attributed to internet platforms. Code-switching could have been a way to prevent this from happening.

Code-switching can also be used as a form of protection against others caricaturing one’s culture. Multiple accents are now known in the public sphere and made fun of in harmful manners. The Jamaican accent, for example, has been introduced into public media and is now caricatured in what people believe is humor. Seeing how the Jamaican accent has been ridiculed, code-switching could be a viable option for protecting one’s accent against such harm.

Finally, code-switching is a tool that can help people achieve access to things that were previously closed to them. To some, it may not alter their identity but simply be an additional form of communication that they use when necessary. Speaking in a specific manner can be a right that is afforded only to people within one’s community. Code-switching delineates who is in one’s community and who isn’t.

These aspects and benefits of code-switching hopefully show that the debate is much more nuanced than simply a matter of race and class.

One should critically evaluate these social media posts requesting the end of code-switching. Oftentimes, they come from influencers who are in a position of privilege when, in reality, not everyone has the luxury to choose not to code-switch. They also assume that people who code-switch are unaware of its racist and classist origins, which is in itself demeaning.

Yes, code-switching’s origins are problematic, however, in practice in our current world, it is a necessary skill with more benefits than one might initially think.

Jasleen Pelia-Lutzker
Jasleen Pelia-Lutzker is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh pursuing a degree in philosophy and linguistics with honors. She has a particular interest in bilingual language acquisition and the evolution of languages in migrant communities. A California native, she is fluent in French, English, and Hindi.


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