Code-switching in the Atlantic

There’s an excellent article on the linguistic work of Prof. Julie Washington in the Atlantic. It’s about code-switching and Prof. Washington’s work in figuring out better ways to educate kids who speak African American English (AAE).

Right at the start of the article, there is a profound quote from Washington. She is talking about a 4-year-old speaker of AAE. Washington read a story to the young girl and asked the girl to recite the story, which she did in her native dialect, AAE. Then Washington says:

 “She had to listen to a story in a dialect she doesn’t really use herself, understand the meaning, hold the story in her memory, recode it in her own dialect, and then say it all back to me.” The girl’s “translation” of the book might not sound like much, but translating it? “That’s hard,” Washington said, especially for a young child.

I never thought about it like this, but Washington is exactly right. That is hard. Code-switching can be like translating one language to another.

There is an unfortunate paragraph, though, which seems to drag linguists for no good reason:

At the conference in Madison, linguists threw around phrases such as auxiliary alternation and diachronic precursor, speaking an academic code Washington avoids. She mostly kept her distance, skipping talks with boring titles; she lacks a linguist’s tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes, declaring herself more interested in “functional” matters. (“Oh my God,” she remarked after one particularly pedantic lecture.) […]

I’m willing to bet journalists have their own phrases and code that no one understands.  So why the shade? Also, everyone skips talks with boring titles. That’s how academic conferences work. Also also, not all linguists have a tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes and that’s ok. What is an obscure grammatical dispute, by the way? Does it involve auxiliary alternation or diachronic precursors? Did you maybe just make it up?

Besides that paragraph, though, the article is gold. Later on after the linguist dissing, the article has two paragraphs that are excellent in explaining the stakes of the situation.

Labov’s recommendation was largely overlooked outside his field. But last June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city—the most extensive study ever of the dialect’s role in education—which led her to a similar conclusion. Strikingly, she discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect. And location mattered: The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English. This suggests to her that children who speak one of the dialect’s “really dense” varieties are having an experience in the classroom not unlike that of, say, native Spanish speakers.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that most AAE speakers have teachers who are hostile to their dialect. In an illuminating investigation published in 1973 (but, according to several linguists I spoke with, still reflective of classroom conditions today), Ann McCormick Piestrup portrayed the AAE speaker’s experience as one of incessant interruption. Black children at the California schools Piestrup studied often answered questions correctly, only to be pounced on for irrelevant differences of pronunciation or grammar. This climate had a drastic effect: As time went on, Piestrup saw students withdraw into “moody silences”; when they did speak, their voices were soft and hesitant. The interrupted students had the lowest reading scores of any children Piestrup observed.

That is what speakers of AAE have been dealing with. It has been hard for linguists to convince schools and parents to adopt the idea of code-switching, especially when it comes to AAE. But this paragraph shows Washington’s great thinking:

A new insight of Washington’s might offer a new path forward, however. In presenting code-switching lessons as a way to ward off catastrophic reading failure, she says, advocates have failed to convey the upsides of speaking African-American English. In a recent paper, Washington points to research showing that fluent speakers of two dialects might benefit from some of the cognitive advantages that accrue to speakers of two languages. She hopes that this line of thinking might at last persuade teachers and parents alike to buy in. “We see value in speaking two languages,” Washington told me. “But we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”

I have seen the positive aspects of AAE spoken of before, such as in McWhorter’s book Talking Back, Talking Black (review coming soon) and on his show on Lexicon Valley, as well as in the work of Walt Wolfram, most recently his film Talking Black in America (see the website here). And we have all seen the articles about how bilinguals are super smart and they live longer and they never get dementia and all the other claims made about what comes from speaking two languages. But I’ve never thought about code-switching as being the same thing as speaking two languages, even though it pretty much is.

Great article. You should read it. You can find it here.


Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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