Two windows with smiling girls titled “The Power of Code-Switching.”

The Power of Code-Switching

By Lea Mercado
Web Content Contributor

In April of 2019, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered a speech at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Convention in New York City. Days after, Twitter flooded with backlash over Ocasio-Cortez’s “drawl.” 

Ocasio-Cortez incorporated informal slang such as “ain’t” and adopted an unfamiliar speaking pattern that was viewed as a poor attempt at appealing to the majority Black audience. 

This controversy that arose from this event brought the necessary discussion of code-switching to the table. 

 Minority communities typically use code-switching to gain social acceptance in the dominating culture, but sometimes it surpasses social acceptance and becomes a survival method. The practice of linguistic code-switching entails alternating between two or more languages or incorporating a variance of English. 

As a Mexican-American, I grew up around code-switching and adopted the practice from a young age before I had the language to describe the method. I first noticed it with my mother; like most Mexican Spanish speakers, she had a sing-song pattern in her speech, but it suddenly vanished when we would go to church on Sundays. 

Her speech became calculated, almost as if before she spoke, her mind had already considered various social and linguistic factors. Her sentences lost their melody, and they became stiffer and more concise. 

For those who grew up in multilingual communities, code-switching is a part of life. Sociologically, it is a recognized reality that assimilation is a necessary practice to avoid marginalization. While typically code-switching is used to assimilate into the dominant culture, it also can unite communities. 

Humans have the natural tendency to find comfort in familiarity. Like many young people of color grow up hoping to see themselves in media, they also hope to hear language like theirs. The ability to recognize language patterns that I grew up with has allowed me to develop friendships and relationships with unspoken shared experiences. 

Controversy surrounds the practice of code-switching because many people of color see it as harmful. It requires the individual to adjust their language in an unnatural way to be seen as valid in a professional or educational setting. 

In her TEDx Talk, Chandra Arthur discusses the complexities of choosing between authenticity and social acceptance as a black woman.

Code-switching is undoubtedly a powerful practice, but a significant dilemma accompanies it. One should not have to choose authentic language over promotions, scholarships or safety, yet it is still common and engrained into people of color from a young age. 

As someone who is white-passing, I experience the privilege of not having my speech perceived as threatening solely based on what I look like, but for many people of color, that is not the case.  As our society progresses and people become more educated and open-minded, it is hoped that code-switching will no longer be necessary so that all forms of language will be celebrated.

Featured image by Lea Mercado.

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