“Let’s go get some snacks,” senior Alondra Alcazar, of Chicago, suggests to a hometown friend, only to be met with surprise.
Her friend perceives her word choice as being too “white.”
Alcazar has just returned home after her first semester at Albion, and found that she has involuntarily changed her word choice. Previously, Alcazar might have said chips instead of snacks or not pronounced the t in let’s. While these seem like minor changes to Alcazar, her friend perceives her ability to talk well as being white.
“In a way, people of color and people from low income backgrounds correlate being educated with being white,” said Alcazar. “So I feel like when I go home, I have to talk more ghetto.”
Heightened awareness of word choice, intonation and other aspects of communication in different contexts is something that many students on Albion’s campus experience. For some, it’s a simple switch between formal and informal language. For others, it’s highly context dependent and varies based on education levels, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and more of people they interact with.
This variation in language and mannerisms in different environments is referred to as “code switching.”
Code Switching Emphasized in Different Contexts
After months away at school, many Albion students find themselves returning to their hometowns with a changed perspective. The people whom students surround themselves with at home may not be familiar with the college atmosphere. This is especially notable for first-generation college students.
Alcazar is a first-generation student, and returning home after her first semester away at Albion, she felt like she had to change her word choice to reach people she had known her whole life.
“I have to not say big words, because I mean I am educating myself along the way and I am trying to become a better version of myself so it’s kind of hard to dumb it down,” said Alcazar. “It sounds kind of messed up but I really have to do that with my family and friends so I can keep up with their conversations.”
Over time, however, she has come to realize the value in sharing her education. She found that including unfamiliar words into family conversations allows them to use language they may not have previously used to express their ideas in different ways.
For Alcazar, navigating around her linguistic development was a matter of taking the time to understand her contextual differences and then working to integrate beneficial aspects of distinct subcultures.
“It makes me feel proud of myself because I am able to communicate with different groups of people, still form really intellectual conversations but also relatable conversations about anything and I really like that,” said Alcazar.
Alcazar has found a way to engage with different people in her life, both at home and at school, but the switch between engaging with different groups often happens behind the scenes. For people of color, being a visible minority often puts their communication styles under the spotlight.
Dr. Holger Elischberger, a psychology professor who teaches cross-cultural psychology, explains what this visibility might mean for students.
“Frequently, in social groups like family or friends, people are surrounded by other people who look and sound like them, and I think for a minority student who comes to campus, the numbers change, they flip. Now, you might be the only person of color in your classroom, or one of just a few people, and that awareness alone probably [impacts] quite a bit,” said Elischberger. “It highlights in some sense that you are not like most other people here, and I do think it can be really problematic for people who are part of a visible minority to feel as connected to a place and its people than folks who are in the majority.”
As of Fall 2019, 15.9 percent of Albion’s student body identified as Black/African American. For these students, use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or “ebonics,” or lack thereof, is scrutinized by their peers, professors, staff and others they interact with, on a daily basis. Sophomore Alex Butler, from Chicago, explains that this distinct vernacular adds a level of complexity to changes in language for people of color.
“White people only have two levels of code-switching. They talk to their friends the same way they usually talk to their parents,” said Butler. ”It’s a little bit different with their friends, but it’s not like what they would say ghetto is like for people of color.”
Butler views his code-switching on a scale of 0-5, and notes that depending on his audience, he will change his language to varying extents. Likewise, Jada Stewart, a sophomore from Chicago, describes her experiences with code switching as dependent on her comfort level with the people around her and how much of her true self she is willing to display.
“My roommate, she’s white, but in a sense I’m comfortable with her so when I transition from home, and I come back to my dorm I can feel comfortable. Everything still feels normal because we have a connection, but say for example when I’m around her friends, code-switching activated,” Stewart said. “It’s about who you’re comfortable with, when the code switch is activated or not.”
Code-switching is a mental task, and Elischberger notes that the more often people have to switch from a more informal to a more formal language use, the easier it gets cognitively. Students observe this as well, noting that by the time they are in college, the switch comes so naturally to them that they don’t even notice when it occurs.
“[Code-switching] has to do with formal and informal speaking, so I consider the way I usually talk informal. If it’s a professor or somebody that’s not of color [who I’m talking to] then it’s formal, but if it’s a minority then I feel like at this point I’m so used to it that it just naturally happens. I don’t even think that it’s code switching, it’s just like a flip, literally it just automatically comes on,” said Stewart. “So I think that’s something I kind of naturally adjusted to in my mind. It’s been implemented in us, you know people of color, it’s natural.”
Code-switching extends beyond just formal and informal when another language is in the mix– from English, accented English, to another language. Students who use entirely different languages in their home lives find that college merges formerly distinct languages and norms of what they commonly use in their homes and what they use at school. Alcazar finds that she has to try harder when speaking in Spanish, even though it used to come naturally before.
Elischberger, a native German speaker, says he knows this as well. Although he uses English for all of his professional life and spends a lot of time thinking in English, when he is tired or in a heightened state of emotional stress, he finds himself using German words in English conversations. The impact of this can go beyond a regular slip up.
“It doesn’t bother me anymore but I used to be self-conscious about [my accent] because it indicates something about my immigrant status,” said Elischberger. “People make assumptions about you based on whether you sound like a native speaker, or somebody who learned it as a second or third language.”
Elischberger notes that code switching means different things to different people. What people make of it comes down to how much of themselves they’re willing to give up, and what they feel is important in their identity.
“Part of it is probably just the calculus you do in terms of just how much of an impact you think slipping up, or not adapting to the majority norm, might have on your instructors or your peers view of you, on your academic performance, and just how important that particular aspect, like the language you use, is to your identity,” said Elischberger. “Do you really feel like you need to give up an important chunk of who you are by adapting to what you think the majority does, or is it something that’s rather secondary and you don’t feel like you’re losing a whole lot just by changing the particular words you use for instance? That math looks different for different people and it might even look different for individuals from one day to the next.”
Personal Impacts of Code Switching
The constant juggling of different forms of communication are an added cognizant task. Elischberger expands on the mental process behind it.
“You have to be aware of the fact that maybe how you would express yourself in this particular context might not be appropriate, suppress that, and then find what seems to be the culturally appropriate way of expressing yourself at that moment and that takes effort, it’s mental effort,” said Elischberger. “If you’re mentally fatigued, if you’re stressed, those kinds of processes are more vulnerable to not working as well.”
Code switching is more than just a subconscious process. Being aware of the act itself makes some students step back and question the world around them.
“When you’re younger, you don’t know that code-switching was a thing, you just did it,” said Butler. “Then when you found out what it was you’re like huh, I do that? Why do I do that? Why do I feel like I have to do that? It’s just hurtful.”
Reality striking is not just a one-time thing. Elischberger notes that when larger incidents of prejudice and discrimination occur, targeted groups tend to be more aware of how their speech registers with people around them. Even on a daily basis, small incidents can trigger a heightening of awareness.
“Each time [you code switch] is sort of a reminder that you’re not part of a majority here. You’re asked essentially to change that or suppress that for the classroom context or other social contexts on campus,” said Elischberger. “You’re essentially asking people to deny part of who they are, and I think that makes them feel like they don’t belong or they only belong in their small subgroup of people, and that can be challenging. ”
Stewart reflects on how code-switching makes her think twice about societal perspectives.
“It just made me question, who determined that the proper way of speaking was the high pitch voice or you know the wording selection when it changes, who decided that that was the natural way, compared to like back at home within your culture, you may talk different naturally, so why isn’t our culture the one that is put on the higher up and said that’s the professional way of speaking? It just makes me question things like that,” said Stewart.
Despite the societal implications, many students feel like they have to code switch to feel a sense of belonging or to not feel invalidated based on how they talk.
“We have to change ourselves to be accepted by the majority of society,” said Adriana Valerio, a sophomore from Chicago. “It sucks that we can’t just be with an accent or like our normal way, and instead we have to constantly switch so that others can see us as equal to them.”
Butler has a similar take.
“It feels like you have to conceal a part of yourself because you know they won’t fully accept it and they want to see only this high class business side of you,” said Butler.
Getting past this challenge can be rewarding. Jayson Sawyer, a junior from Evanston, Ill., views code-switching as an exhausting skill to have.
“It makes me feel powerful and makes me feel good like I was able to help them,” said Sawyer. “It’s like being a human Rosetta Stone and being able to translate your experience to minds that may not usually be receptive of those particular experiences or voices.”
Code switching is unique to each individual’s identities. Alcazar agrees that being able to code switch is a worthy tool.
“Being able to code switch gives you the ability to talk and reach out to all kinds of groups of people,” said Alcazar. “I think it expands the groups of people who you’re able to talk to, and I don’t think everybody’s capable of code switching.”
Code Switching on Albion’s Campus
“On campus, it’s majority white, so you often find yourself code switching,” said Stewart. “It forces you to naturally have your code-switch activated, ready, you never know who might walk past that you’re not really familiar with, or not comfortable with.”
Students are not only conscious of their switch in the presence of other groups, but also within their own groups. People who identify with certain groups may have different views on how things should be carried out or portrayed. The horizontal hostility, or tension created in such situations, adds to students censoring their conversions.
“A lot of times, code switching would be seen as, like, being fake or ‘Oh you act a certain way here but you don’t act the same way here,’” said Sawyer. “But I feel like code switching over time, it’s a responsibility. You learn that it’s okay, to navigate spaces for success you have to code switch. Code switching doesn’t make you fake but shows your intersectionality. It shows the complexity of yourself because all of them feel right and are right for you. That person is the same valuable person regardless of how you think they should act because it is the reality, all of those characteristics that they display in different areas or scenes.”
Valerio expands on others’ reactions to how she talks.
“People think I’m white washed because I speak without an accent. I’ve gotten told by people, ‘Oh I didn’t even know you spoke a different language because you speak English so well,’” said Valerio. “So, it’s kind of that misconception that I’m white washed just because I speak so formally. And I’ve had white people come up to me and tell me that, ‘Oh wow, you speak so formally or so eloquently,’ and it’s like well, how did you expect me to talk?”
Some students don’t see differences among students as as much of a barrier as the social setting. Sophomore Jess Garcia, from Los Angeles, Cal., explains how the classroom setting is more impactful.
“[Whether] I’m friends with a person of color or a white person I still talk to them how I talk, but if it’s someone I don’t know, or someone in a class, I try to talk in an educated way,” said Garcia. “That’s one thing that stresses me out a lot, and I try to not fulfill that stereotype that people put on us that we’re uneducated or don’t know how to act in front of others.”
On a college campus, students are more free to explore different ideas, which often contrasts the strict social norms of a high school setting where perspectives are largely brought about by authority figures. Albion’s small class sizes add to students’ ability to express themselves as who they are without being overly concerned about perception.
Alcazar finds that this has helped her grow. She works to empower other students to look past the barriers that code-switching creates and let themselves get the most out of their Albion experience.
“There are other students, especially underrepresented students, who feel intimidated to speak in class, and I didn’t want to be that student, like I didn’t want to belong to that group. If anything, I wanted to lead by example,” said Alcazar. “I remember even writing my notes down and telling my friend to raise their hand to say it out loud.”
As a senior looking back, Alcazar sees her efforts paid off and notes that the whole experience of being in Albion and adapting takes time.
“I feel like Albion is offering these resources. It’s just up to the student to take it, and it’s different for people who come from these different backgrounds. It takes time. First-year students might find it a little bit harder, but over the years, they will slowly take advantage and make it their own,” said Alcazar. “My friends who were like that their first year of being here, when I see them in class now, they really do try to participate, especially my friends who are from Chicago, and the’re also Latinas. We’ve all been growing throughout this whole process together.”
Some students see a more specific, inclusive message as potentially beneficial.
“I feel like if [Albion] were to promote that diversity is okay, you speaking another language is okay then people wouldn’t really have a problem with that, and people wouldn’t really feel as pressured to speak a certain way,” said Valerio.
Many students feel that it comes down to individuals being cognizant and doing work to increase awareness in order for people to come together. Sawyer finds that the need to code-switch can be overlooked if students put effort in.
“Particularly minority Albion College students are placed in boxes and categories. Code switching allows us to redefine those boxes and categories. But if you can find more spaces in environments that are not artificial, and you can connect to people as humans not as official titles, then you don’t have to even use code switch,” said Sawyer.
For Alcazar, it took a moment of realization, reflection, and constant action to make improvements for herself.
“I just think that I had to have this own moment with myself, and talk to myself about how I wanted to present myself. I was like you know what, I shouldn’t be feeling like this. By sophomore year, that’s something I think I really tried mastering,” said Alcazar. “When I took public speaking second semester of freshman year, I realized that not all white people could speak. I used to have this crazy idea that white people could just speak so clearly, but like no, some people don’t even know how to speak in front of class.”
Garcia has found her views on linguistic differences have changed as she grew older.
“Now I embrace it, yeah I have a lisp, I have an accent, so what? Everybody here has flaws, but we’re all here to get an education and we’re all capable of many things despite our flaws,” said Garcia. “So, right now I try to embrace it. But it’s hard, so it’s a work in progress kind of thing.”
Ultimately, students must learn to focus on the humanity of people around them and be cognizant of their audience’s reception.
At a liberal arts college, students learn to connect ideas from various disciplines. Albion allows students to hone these skills of cross-context connections, and thus aids students in bringing together ideas and styles from different cultural contexts for better results.
Experiences portrayed in this article are specific examples and may not be representative of every student. The main purpose of this article is to show students who feel pressured by code-switching that they are not alone and to increase awareness for those who may not be cognizant of it.
Thanks, Zahra, for this important article. For so many of us who grew up in monolingual, monocultural environments, college is often our earliest exposure to different forms of communication. I appreciate so many of your interviewees’ vulnerability in sharing their growth in understanding over these years.
Prof. Elischberger’s example is a valuable inclusion here, for few of us would quibble about the necessity of code-switching between distinct languages. Likewise, we don’t question the value of code-switching when talking with small children who lack vocabulary (and cognition) for higher-level adult conversation. (Of course, challenging/augmenting the vocabulary of our children is also how they grow.)
The sticky area comes in between, when conversants are adult speakers of the same language but of different dialects. In any society or country, there is a power dynamic at play. One language, right or wrong, is given prestige and preference over others. How we choose to navigate that space is what challenges us to find consciously equitable ways of intercommunication. Good luck to all in mastering those conversations with growing grace and aplomb!
Code switching in my experience has proven to be a phenomenon that allows a conversation to move along at a faster clip between bilingual speakers of the same two languages. I sometimes refer to it as translanguaging. Some of this code switching which is mentioned earlier in this article sounds like a switching more of registers. Good article.
Seems to me that minority speakers know more about “speaking” effects than do students not in a minority.