The Ultimate Code Switch

Black-Women-Whispering-Blue-Orange-Ankara-Head-ScarfIf you come from a community that values its unique language, accent and/or dialect, chances are you’ve found yourself code switching
on a regular basis in professional or academic settings. There’s an even greater chance that you’ve found yourself having a conversation about it, maybe even a debate about whether it’s necessary or not. We are all familiar with the difference between how we greet the homies at work versus our other coworkers. Now think back to grade school, do you believe you were code-switching then?
Well bruh, the ultimate code-switch is kids as young as 9-years-old throghout the continent of Africa literally flowing between very different languages. Where I work in Durban, South Africa students learn in their home language of Zulu with English as a second language course, until 4th grade when English is the only language they’re allowed to speak and learn in during class moving forward. Imagine if by 9-years-old, your teachers were like, “Ok, only Spanish from here on out for every subject!” I started taking Spanish at 9-years-old and still can’t have more than a basic conversation in it, furthermore learn division in Spanish. (Then again, I can barely do math in English.)

To add more context, at my particular high school where students only learn in English, both students and administration are black and Zulu is also a class taken daily. When trying to understand from administration the reason behind this particular structure of learning English, answers were rooted in tradition and a desire for progress. Maybe in their mind this process of pushing one’s own language to the side is something they went through, so the kids should as well. Maybe those who are struggling financially right now wish they had the opportunity to be forced to speak in English for better job opportunities. In my opinion, it is possible to ensure that students learn English to ensure their economic well-being without putting one’s own language on the back burner.

The one thing I stressed to my students on day one, is the value of
their culture and their language. After asking them about how they felt about this hierarchy of languages to no real response, I proceeded to let them know that I am only here to teach English as a tool for them to succeed in their career goals, not because English is some superior language. I stressed that their success is cool and necessary but appreciating and understanding their culture and native tongue is crucial. It’s a privilege that a lot of us on the other side of the ocean don’t have. I told them while it sucks that they can’t speak Zulu in their other classes, they are welcomed to speak it here – with an English translation followed- since it’s still English class. I can only wonder, as they grow and think more critically about these rules,

what they will think about this extreme code-switch. I asked my parents who had a similar experience growing up in the Gold Coast as it transitioned to being a liberated Ghana, and they had no foul feelings about it. It’s the origin of code-switching and a fact of life for them and many of us.

So while I’ve viewed code switching as an annoyance, a putting a piece of one’s self on the back burner for the sake of putting some food on the table, I also began to value it for what it’s worth. We actually have something on that back burner after a long day in the stale, culture-less walls of the grind. That pot has all the sauce we need to spice up life in our bland, western world. Whether it’s a green Thai curry or a Jamaican jerk sauce, I’m glad we all have something that is our very own and is preserved within the con
fines of our community, not watered down by corporation or appropriation. My kids are at their happiest when speaking Zulu to each other. Every day I witness the ultimate code switch, and while it shouldn’t have to be the case, I’ve learned to take pride in the fact that our babies have something that is simply theirs, unperturbed and ready to be preserved for the next generation.


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