On Code-Switching and Teaching Hamlet

Traditionally, I think we tend to associate code-switching with the phenomenon of people from certain smaller cultures or niches in our larger society altering their use of language to communicate more effectively with the people around them, who are speaking the more common version of the language in question or another, “more commonly used” language altogether. However, depending on the scenario, any person speaking in any language can be the minority and find themselves a linguistic outsider, even if that person’s language is usually viewed as “standard” or “regular” English in other, perhaps broader scenarios or from those perspectives. Although I am a native English speaker and, indeed, one almost absurdly enamored with grammar and “proper” usage, there have been many times both inside and outside the Center for Writing Excellence that, as a consultant, educator, peer, or (frankly) person, I have had to function in situations that have made me a linguistic outsider. Indeed, it was as a result of my love of grammar that I once found myself in such a situation.

One of the most memorable and long-term instances in which I found myself a linguistic outsider and needed to code-switch was during my time student-teaching while I was in my final year as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware. I was pursuing my Bachelor of Arts in Secondary English Education and was placed in a low-income, high-need high school in Maryland. As I stress above, I am a self-confessed grammar aficionado, and I know that this comes across in both my spoken and written language (one of my professors once noted that he felt I had escaped from a Jane Austen novel). However, at the high school in which I was placed, the students with whom I was working found my use of language to be overly complex, flowery, and even arrogant in an unintentionally holier-than-thou way. Try (and agonize) though I might (and did), I found myself unable to communicate effectively with the very people I so desperately wanted (and needed!) to teach. In retrospect, I realize that I initially misread the situation as an issue of respect, and misguidedly amped up the tone of my language all the more in an effort to gain some handle on the classes I was teaching.

When this first attempt failed, in a refreshed effort to reach my students, I started to listen to and adopt some of their speech patterns to convey my ideas and goals in a version of English that was more comfortable and approachable for them. With a bit of time (and a few laughs directed at me, as was no doubt wont to happen), I found that my students began to respond to me and to the literature I was teaching (Hamlet, if you can believe my luck) with more enthusiasm and confidence. Code-switching in the name of fostering the comfort and skill of the group as a whole can be an incredibly useful and often undervalued tool in the classroom and beyond it. Speaking and relating to one another with mutual respect and understanding in mind can only improve our communications and the foundations of an ever-growing society.

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