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Code-Switching in the US Posted by on Apr 18, 2019 in Culture, English Language, Linguistics

The very controversial New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently accused of mimicking African Americans during a speech. She tossed in a few words from black urban culture and phrased some of her language in a manner unlike her common way of speaking. Many thought that she was misappropriating Black English and that it was embarrassing for all concerned. They had it all wrong. She was code-switching.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

Code-switching is a phenomenon of linguistics very common to the United States. Essentially, it is the act of using more than one language in a conversation. Multilingual speakers may switch between languages if both parties are comfortable with the linguistic shifts. Some words and phrases are simply more elegant or forceful in one language than another. In multicultural households in the US, it is quite common to hear entire families switch back and forth between their native and adopted languages.

For Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who represents probably the most multi-ethnic district in America, shifting between her natural dialect and the style of speech common to the living rooms of her audience was a case of monolingual code-switching. Because she is not black, Representative Ocasio-Cortez was accused of acting in an attempt to ingratiate herself with a community which she depends upon for votes.

But, the congresswoman is a Latina from the Bronx. In communities like the Bronx, where Latin American and African American residents have coexisted for over 50 years, engaging in code-switching is as common as the Afro-Cuban beat of their mutual musical heritage. Code-switching is typical of people who wish to show solidarity with others. Close neighbors are likely to share each other’s cadence and vocabulary.

However, code-switching can be negative if there is no shared commonality. It seems condescending and false. In instances where this happens, at best, the attempt is embarrassing.

We All Do It

All of us, in some way, engage in code-switching every day. The way you speak in a professional meeting is almost certainly going to be different from how you talk around your friends after work. If you have a pet at home you likely use a different tone when addressing it than you do your spouse or roommate. This is also true of the speech patterns of parents with little children. Mom and dad talk to each other quite differently than they do when talking to their children, sometimes even within the same sentence.

Perhaps the most noticeable examples of code-switching in the US is when people return to the part of the country where they grew up. Dialects and speech cadence change over time when people move to different parts of the country. But, within a short time of returning, the old speech patterns come back. This is a subconscious effort to fit back in. And, it is effective.

At its best, code-switching is politely colloquial. It ensures that, through a sprinkling of words and phrases and a soft shifting of vocal cadence, you can establish a friendly commonality with someone of another language and/or culture. It says, “We’re neighbors. We’re friends. We get each other.”

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  1. CV Achat:

    I am always trying to explain this to people. We all speak two or more languages. In Trinidad we switch between Our Mother language, Std English, and our first language, Trinidadian Creole.