Monday, July 20, 2009

Teaching Code-Switching in the Classroom

"Speak proper English!" as a child I had this said to me on more than one occasion. 9 out of 10 times it was said by my grammar-enthusiast father who loved to read write and engage in intellectual conversations using this "proper" English. "'Nutthin' is not a real world" he would say as he instructed me on the "correct" way to pronounce "nothing" all in the same breath. My mother was the complete opposite of my father. She is a southern girl with a thick southern accent and speaks in the North American slave dialect popularly known as "Ebonics." After my parents divorced, I mastered the art of code-switching. When I was around my mother I spoke in Ebonics just like the rest of my siblings and family members. When I was around my father I spoke in formal English. I did not know it at the time but I was being taught a skill that would be invaluable to me throughout my adult years--code-switching. There is a current movement for teachers to introduce students to code-switching at an early age. The results are beneficial to a child's life but with teaching code-switching comes negative implications.
It is contradictory of us to teach our students that everyone is equal but in the same breath correct them on their "improper" use of English. The very idea of code-switching implies that one discourse is superior to the other. If all of our languages were accepted on the same level the there would not be the need to code-switch. One could go into a job interview and use double negatives and contractions galore. The truth is, there is a language hierarchy just as there is a social hierarchy. Students need to know that informal English is shunned upon by the majority of people. As John Baugh (2000) writes, "if teachers are going to legitimize [non standard English] then all authority figures who interact with children-such as law enforcement officers-will have to learn it as well." We all know that everyone is unwilling to use non-standard English but they are willing to judge those who are unwilling to use Standard English.
The positive aspects of code-switching cannot be denied. In America there is a clear majority of people who have power to make, change, and influence policy. For our students to become successful adults they have to learn how to emulate the language of those in power. They must know that if they go on a job interview they will be frowned upon if they speak informally. They must understand that language is a form of social currency and that people judge you on the type of language you use and how you use it. Even though some people may try to deny it, "all Americans are keenly aware of linguistic prejudice among us, including strong differences of linguistic opinion among people from similar racial backgrounds" (Baugh 2000). This is why teaching our students how to code-switch is very important. Teaching the value of code-switching will enable students to adapt to several discourses in the future. These students will be able to avoid negative labels and stereotypes based on their use of Standard English within appropriate discourses.
Our language is influenced by whatever discourse we are in at the moment. In the opening paragraph you may have noticed that I used quotation marks for the word "proper." This is because there is no such thing as "proper" English or "improper" English. If I speak formally around my mother's side of my family I may be frowned upon because in that discourse it is considered "improper" to speak formal English. It is far more politically correct to use the words "formal" and "informal" or "standard" or "nonstandard." Speaking Standard English around my black peers can isolate me from the group. My peers may look down upon me as being pretentious and I may face social ridicule. Even though we must reinforce to students their language is not "improper" we must also let them know that in hierarchical world, those with power may look upon their language as being "improper" because of its informality. Minority students tend to feel isolated in their inclination to speak in informal English. As educators, we must inform them that informal English is not only limited to minorities. Even White people experience a linguistic sub cultural divide. John Baugh explains (2000), "Whites who grew up in the northeast tend to speak differently than do Whites who grew up on the Southeast and often maintain their linguistic loyalties to their group or region while castigating others from elsewhere."
Teaching code-switching to our students can be one of the most culturally relevant things that we teach them. It is not without it's challenges. If students are not code-switching on a regular basis then they may lose the ability to do it. Many of our students do not see the relevance in it as they are too young to interact in settings where they must behave professionally. They have not yet formed a secondary discourse. The reason I learned how to code-switch so effectively was because I was regularly practicing it without knowing it would be relevant to my future. I simply knew that my father would not tolerate me speaking "improperly" around him. I find it would be very difficult to actually teach students this concept in the setting of a classroom. For an elementary or middle school teacher it is very difficult to teach students the relevance of code-switching.
According to Piaget's formal operations stage, beginning at age 12 students are now able to transcend concrete situations and think about the future. Since the very essence of teaching children how to code switch is to help them become successful adults, how are these young children supposed to understand this if they have not reached the formal operations stage yet? As a 7th- grade teacher, even though all of my students are at least 12-years-old, it is apparent that the majority of them have not yet reached the formal operations stage. Indeed it seems far too advanced to teach younger students how to code-switch but they can learn the concept if they have sufficient preparation. In order to effectively teach students how to code-switch teachers must use the contrastive analysis approach versus the correctionist approach.
We live in a society where parents and teachers are taking on a correctionist approach when it comes to language. Teachers are constantly devaluing their students' home language by deeming it "improper" in comparison to Standard English. The majority of people in formal settings have adverse reactions to children speaking in non-standard English. Just like my father's constant need to correct my linguistic informalities, "many people may have similar reactions upon hearing nonstandard English, be it vernacular African American English or some other nonstandard dialect belonging to some other linguistically disenfranchised group" (Baugh 2000). The correctionist approach excludes and marginalizes the language of most inner-city students who are already being socially marginalized. Because of this, teachers are now adopting the contrastive analysis approach.
An increasing number of teachers are going about teaching code-switching by way of the contrastive analysis approach. The aim of this approach is to teach students that there language is not inferior to Standard English but it is just different. This approach compares the nuances of formal English to informal English in a way that students can clearly identify the structural and grammatical differences in both languages. An aim of this approach is to teach students that their language is not inferior to Standard English but different. Comparing language to clothing creates a clear analogy that the students can remember. Just like clothing, language can and should be changed to meet the occasion. We would not wear sweat pants and a tank top to a wedding. We would wear formal clothing. We would not wear flip-flops and ripped shorts to a job interview. For formal occasions we dress formally. For informal occasions we dress informally. Just because we do not wear sweatpants to a job interview does not mean sweatpants are "bad." According to Wheeler and Swords (2006) the use of "formal and informal work really well with young children" because "it is important for young children to have something concrete to relate new terms to." The aforementioned analogy of language to clothing, "fits [students'] experience of comfortable language versus best-behavior language (Wheeler and Swords 2006).
The main objective when trying to teach students to speak Standard English is to avoid correcting them when they speak in informal English during class discussions. The correctionist approach "derails the meaning of the conversation and aggravates and alienates the students. Further, correction does not teach the Standard English patterns" (Wheeler & Swords 2006). Research shows that the contrastive analysis approach is far more successful than traditional approaches to teaching Standard English (Wheeler & Swords 2006). It is about time we start effectively teaching our kids how to use Standard English.

Work Cited
Baugh, J (2000). Beyond Ebonics : Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wheeler, R, & Swords, R (2006). Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms.Urbana: Illonois.

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