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Code-switching is the practice of moving between variations of languages in different contexts. Everyone who speaks has learned to code-switch depending on the situation and setting. In an educational context, code-switching is defined as the practice of switching between a primary and a secondary language or discourse.

History of code-switching

In 1977, Carol Myers-Scotton and William Ury identified code-switching as the “use of two or more linguistic varieties in the same conversation or interaction.”1 That year, a small group of parents at Martin Luther King Elementary School sued the Ann Arbor School District Board claiming their children were not receiving equal educational opportunities because they were not being taught to use the “Standard English” language.2 This case “established the legitimacy of African American Language (AAL) within a legal framework” and mandated the Ann Arbor School District teach children, using their home languages, how to read in the “Standard English.”3 Later, in 1996, a major lawsuit in California generated the Oakland Ebonics Resolution, which recognized AAL/African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as the primary language of the African American students in the district and required that this language be used to assist those students to acquire and master “Standard English.”

Primarily due to these mandates, sociolinguists began to engage in more thorough research on Black English4, AAVE, and AAL and the similarities in structure and grammar to “Standard English.” Subsequently, many large school districts (i.e. Los Angeles, CA) created programs to address the needs of the students who used these dialects in order to facilitate the acquisition of “Standard English.”

Code-Switching with dialects of African American or Black English

Amanda Godley, Julie Sweetland, and Rebecca Wheeler define dialect as “a variety of a language that is associated with a particular regional or social group” and maintain that dialect does not mean “a lesser, informal, or ungrammatical way of speaking.”5 The authors propose that scientific research on language “demonstrates that standard dialects are not linguistically better by any objective measures; they are socially preferred simply because they are the language varieties used by those who are most powerful and affluent in a society.”6 Godley, Sweetland, and Wheeler document several studies that have demonstrated how teachers underestimate or overlook the linguistic abilities of speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Puerto Rican English, and other vernacular dialects. Even though researchers have documented the extent of such students’ linguistic repertoires and their awareness of code-switching and style-shifting in various social contexts, they are still looked upon negatively by many educators. Furthermore, those teachers who have a negative opinion of students who use AAVE or other vernacular English dialects often contribute to those students’ oppositional view of schooling.

Deric Greene and Felicia Walker maintain that “[Code-switching] can involve the alternation between two different languages, two tonal registers, or a dialectical shift within the same language such as Standard English and Black English.”7 Greene and Walker also argue that code-switching is “a linguistic tool and a sign of the participants’ awareness of alternative communicative conventions.”8 Furthermore, code-switching has been described as “a strategy at negotiating power for the speaker” and “reflects culture and identity and promotes solidarity.”9

In the nation’s public schools, standardized test scores consistently reveal that African American students are performing at significantly lower rates than their white peers. Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Swords contend that these students are failing the tests not because of the content of the tests, but “because they experience great difficulties understanding the language of the test questions.”10 African American children often speak in vernacular English and do not realize the differences between the patterns of how they speak and those of “Standard English.”

Rebecca Wheeler suggests that teaching through a traditional language arts lens treats African American and other language minority students as being in the deficit paradigm. “An insight from linguistics offers a way out of this labyrinth: Students using vernacular language are not making errors, but instead are speaking or writing correctly following the language patterns of their community.”11

Code-switching in Practice

Language response: The correctionist approach

Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Swords contend that the correctionist approach to language response “diagnoses the child’s home speech as ‘poor English’ or ‘bad grammar,’ finding that the child does not know how to show plurality, possession, and tense,’ or the child ‘has problems’ with these.”12 This approach assumes that “Standard English” is the only proper form of language and tries to do away with the child’s home language. Because classrooms are not culturally or linguistically monolithic, this approach tends to exclude those students who are not fluent in “Standard English.”

Language response: The contrastivist approach

Wheeler and Swords maintain that the primary principle of the contrastivist approach is that “language comes in diverse varieties.” This “linguistically-informed model” recognizes that the student’s home language is not any more deficient in structure than the school language.13 In this approach, teachers “help children become explicitly aware of the grammatical differences” between the formal “Standard English” and the informal home language. “Knowing this, children learn to code-switch between the language of the home and the language of the school as appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose.”14 When an educator prepares a student to code-switch, the student becomes explicitly aware of how to select the appropriate language to use in the given context.

How to move from corrective to contrastive

Based on the research Wheeler and Swords conducted with classroom teachers, they recommend methods for moving from the corrective approach of language response to the contrastive response:

  • Recognize the vernacular patterns in writing and use this to teach a whole class lesson on the differences between the “Standard English” version and the home language. Maybe use a chart to show the differences.
  • Initiate conversations about how people speak differently in diverse settings.
  • Engage students in a role-playing activity where they imitate different people they know within the community, and have students examine the differences in the way these people speak.
  • Demonstrate how to self-correct written work for a formal purpose, and when students feel more comfortable, encourage them to read their work aloud.
  • Try to be more accepting of the fact that everyone code-switches. Remember the way we respond to a friend’s question might be completely different than how we would answer the principal or superintendent’s queries.
  • Introduce dialectical language through literature. Culturally rich literature is available at every grade level.

Additionally, Greene and Walker suggest that in order to create an inclusive environment for African American students, teachers might want to “redesign the learning environment so that it responds to diverse learners; promote leadership and pro-social skill development; consider the social and emotional issues of African American learners; teach code-switching; and partner with professionals, students, families, and the community to contribute to the overall learning experience.”15 Teachers can also explain to students that they must learn to negotiate “Standard” and Black English in order to “broaden their linguistic skills and function within society.” Teachers must be more “sensitive and enlightened to ethnicities” in order to better facilitate successful social growth in their students.16

Greene and Walker also recommend not taking for granted that students and teachers set clear expectations for navigating between “Standard” and Black English and suggest that teachers take engage in the following practices:

  • Make certain teacher goals are communicated in a clear manner and that the students understand those goals.
  • Explain how and when certain language usage is or is not appropriate.
  • Make sure students understand how certain contexts require code-switching.
  • Demonstrate code-switching in the classroom.
  • Affirm for students that their language is viable and valuable.
  • Make sure students understand that you understand the historical importance of their language.
  • Study the historical development of Black English and “Standard English.”
  • Develop culturally reflective assignments and activities with a focus on diversity. (For example: assigning students to give a tribute speech on someone in their home community in the dialect or language in which the person would speak.)

Teaching students to code switch is more of a learner-centered approach to teaching. This type of approach to learning also fits the standardized testing model because teachers demonstrate for students how to interpret a standardized test, which can sometimes be written in what appears as a foreign language.