On Code Switching

I used to code-switch all the time, long before I knew what it was that I was doing. When I was with my family, I spoke more the way I thought they wanted me to. When I was at school, I spoke more the way I thought they wanted me to. And when I was at parties (as I got older), I spoke the way I thought they wanted me to.

It doesn’t work, man.

I’m not saying code-switching doesn’t work. I’m saying attempting to gain acceptance through modifying speech doesn’t work. My family loves me regardless of how I talk, and at this point in my academic career, adopting a voice that isn’t my own just won’t work.

I’ve been encouraged that every single one of my professors in my doctoral program thus far has encouraged me to really find and use my voice. I haven’t been told - as I was in a previous program - to adopt jargon where other vocabulary will do, or to change the way I write aside from knowing and using the forms and conventions that will make publication likelier. I have never written more like myself and it’s been great.

Recently, however, I realized that I had stopped code-switching in my daily life a few years ago. I change the subjects I talk about depending on my audience, sure, and whether or not I include profanity varies, too. But when I teach, when I socialize, when I meet new people, I’m pretty much always using the same words, the same accent, the same speech patterns overall.

I won’t pretend there isn’t a class privilege involved here. My natural speech is relatively (although not entirely) acceptable in “elite” society so I don’t HAVE to hide it. It’s true. I might have to code switch if I spoke AAVE more naturally and comfortably. But the real goal isn’t to get us to learn how to speak Dominant American English more perfectly - although, in 2019, we probably still should know the conventions - it’s to kick in the door so, however we speak, they listen.

Maybe that’s something I can achieve, in some small way. To get them to value our speech as it is. It took me 30 years to value my own authentic voice. Excuse the jargon, but I have found my own idiolect, and just like all of yours, it is fantastic.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality