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Should We Teach Black Students to Code-Switch?

Code-switching is defined as the process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. People are said to code-switch for various reasons:

However, the most prominent reason Black children are told to code-switch is often left out... Black children are told repeatedly that the way they speak naturally is WRONG. They're told that they cannot be successful in life if they don't change the way they speak to white people. HOW IS THAT NOT A PROBLEMATIC MESSAGE?

Although I understand the need to teach rules of professionalism (which is also rooted in white supremacy culture...but we can discuss that some more later), I believe there are better ways to do it. We can teach different rules of language without telling Black students that they need to mask who they are.

There are four umbrella "Rules of Language" that I share with my students:

  • Written Language Rules

  • Social Language Rules (to be used with peers)

  • Respectful Language Rules (to be used with adults)

  • Formal Language Rules (to be used in interviews, presentations, etc.)

The most important component of these rules is that none aim to erase, minimize, or degrade my students' dialect(s). None of them suggest they can't say "Ain't no way I would miss the game", which is double negation and used for emphasis. However, double negation is typically not accepted in formal writing. Therefore, my Written Language Rules may change the way this sentence is emphasized, by asking the student to add more detail.

"I would never miss the game, because I know how much it means to my team."

Social Language Rules, AKA Pragmatics, are often problematic themselves. Old school pragmatics is ableist and often centered the comfort of the communication partner. My social language rules do not include eye contact or turn-taking in structured conversations that they are not interested in. I believe social language rules should encompass 1) safety, 2) age-appropriateness, and 3) kindness. It is important that these rules are individualized, as all therapy should be. No rules are "one size fits all", so the wants, needs, and interests of each student should be considered.

Respectful Language Rules are to be used with adults such as parents, teachers, coaches, etc. As we know, kids can get a little wild when they're around their peers. There are just some topics, phrases, and general conversations that should be reserved for their friends and I, personally, don't want to be a part of 😅

These "rules" are simple to explain and easy for kids to understand. I set boundaries such as not wanting to hear them curse, no sexual innuendos, or anything else considered inappropriate. This may vary depending on your level of conservativeness, but boundaries should always be established and explained so students are able to generalize them outside of therapy.

Formal Language Rules can be tricky. I don't ever want to make students feel like they need to change who they are to succeed in classes, get into college, or get a job. I know I don't want that for myself! I emphasize that they should always display their personalities. Speaking formally should not mean erasure of culture, dialect, or personal style. I tell them they should use the same respectful language rules, while demonstrating their understanding of a topic and knowledge of relevant vocabulary. However, I'm not afraid to discuss what "professionalism" often means, especially to older students. They should have all the information needed to make a decision about if a professional/educational situation is one that they want to be in. Let me tell you first hand, just feeling ~racist vibes~ is real, and they should know they don't have to stay in those situations if they are uncomfortable being themselves, or fear for their safety.

My final answer to should we teach Black students to code-switch is NO, we shouldn't. However, we SHOULD inform them of different language rules and the reality of the world that we live in. Unfortunately, Black people speaking in AAE is still looked down upon more often than not. I think the best way to change that is to allow students to speak the way they do naturally, while they continue to show us how intelligent and capable they are. Periodt.

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Beautiful!!!! I've been trying to explain why code switching for acceptance is a problem but could not figure out the alternative, and you provided language rules as the answer. Do you have more on these rules? I work with incarcerated youth and have made a list of their slang with the vision of them walking me through translations they can navigate on the outside but didn't know where to start. As a reformed former Standard English purist (first generation from immigrants who called their dialect the "Queens English", I'm continuing my journey of even my own cultural sensitivity and acceptance. Thank you for the work you do!

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