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Systems, such as governments or civic institutions, are not shaped by a single, uniform culture like they used to be. Cultures used to dominate a certain area or country. If there were any other cultures in that country, they were usually restricted to a specific area or were forced to assimilate. Places like the United States have brought different people from different cultures together. A prime example of this is school. Schools are places where children from all different cultural backgrounds meet. People from different cultures have different ways of speaking. We often change the way we speak to accommodate others. This phenomenon is called code switching. Code-switching has gained a bad reputation because it has been identified as the reason for people losing their identities or accommodating prejudices towards their social class, ethnicity, or religion.
Code-switching is not all bad, though. In many situations, it becomes a way for individuals in a system to be more productive with one another. At home, I speak English. However, for some, it would be hard to understand as there are Yiddish and Hebrew words interspersed. Consider the James Baldwin essay If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? in which he could tell the white man had no idea what his family was saying to him. When talking to one’s family, it may be good others cannot understand them. However, when people from different cultures are trying to communicate with one another, code-switching has value. The role of individuals in a system, generally, is to contribute to the system while maintaining personal interests, morals and identity. Code-switching is a way to communicate more productively with people who may not share your cultural background.
I have personal experience with code-switching. At home, my family speaks English. However, there are certain things we express to each other in either Hebrew or Yiddish, not full sentences, but short words or phrases. For example, if we are talking about dinner we might say it is either milchik or fleischik. Milchik means dairy and fleishik means meat. If we were describing a religious person, we might say they were frum. While there would be a lot of language that would be understandable to others, there would be words that were lost on them. At school I never use Hebrew or Yiddish. I do not see that as a bad thing. If I were to use Hebrew or Yiddish, there would often be times when I would have to explain myself to people. I have a strong cultural identity and am still religious. It is important to maintain personal identity even when you are code-switching.
James Baldwin, in his essay If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? makes the point that a culture’s way of speaking maintains the identity of individuals. Baldwin writes “It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.” When language differences separate one from the larger community, it makes collaboration more difficult. While languages of a specific culture have their merits, when speaking among a more diverse group, language differences between cultures become a roadblock. In these instances, code-switching allows one to participate in the larger, more diverse community.
Cultural differences in speaking is not the only thing that may create a need for code-switching. People across the U.S. have many different accents. In the documentary American Tongues, a variety of accents from the United States are introduced and some of them are easier to understand than others. In the film, many accents are introduced that would be hard for people to understand. In this case, code-switching becomes helpful. People can change the way they speak in order for others to understand them better. In American Tongues there is a part where they show people speaking Creole. These people did code-switch in the film. They spoke to each other in Creole but changed the way they spoke to the camera. In that case, code-switching was a helpful tool.
While code-switching can be a good thing, it is important to be aware of the dangers of code-switching. For some, code-switching is a tool to hide their identity, religion, or social class in order to assimilate. One should not use code-switching to deny his or her identity as an important part of being an individual in a system is to maintain identity and cultural background.
The systems that ran along cultural lines have largely been done away with. Instead of cultures being localized to a certain area like they used to, people from different cultures are spread out all over the United States and all over the world. Since language is often such a big part of culture it creates differences in language between cultures, even those that share the same language. This can make it hard for individuals of the systems of today to communicate with one another. The solution though, is code-switching. Often seen as a negative, code-switching is ignored as the helpful communication tool that it can be and is deemed the culprit of the loss of an individual’s identity. While it is true that loss of identity can be a danger of code-switching, those that do it for the right reasons are able to maintain their cultural identity and communicate with others.
Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”. The New York Times. New York City: The New York Times, 1979.American Tongues. Dir. Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker. Perf. Polly Holliday, Molly Ivins, Robert Klein, Trey Wilson. Center For New American Media, 1987. DVD.