Ruth Nemzoff

Question: I was scrolling through my news feed the other day and saw a Tweet which mentioned “code switching.” It said that words like “ain’t” are cultural markers, and should be applauded instead of corrected in the classroom. I’m confused – I thought we go to school to learn how to speak proper English? Why should slang be encouraged? Growing up in the 1950s, I knew that words like “schmooze” and “schlep” did not belong at my prep school; my mom reminded me to “check my Yiddish at the door.” Why should American slang be any different?

Answer: You seem to instinctively understand the term from your experience. In fact, you yourself have code switched! I suspect you also understood what clothes and mannerisms were acceptable at your prep school and not acceptable with your grandparents. 

Code switching is “shifting from one linguistic code to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting.” We all code switch many times a day with our language, clothes, and behavior. You may talk with babies in a high voice and with simple sentences and with adults use a larger vocabulary. Teenagers will drop the “F Word” constantly with their friends, and then abruptly shut it off when they enter a babysitting job or see a younger sibling. 

The first rule of any speech is, “Know your audience!” One must adjust their vocabulary and tone to fit their setting. 

Growing up, you sensed that your Yiddishisms were not acceptable at your school, so you switched from your home mannerisms to a more formal way of speaking. 

When you were growing up, American education valued standardization and conformity. Teachers encouraged students to shed their own cultural markers to fulfill a vision of an American who spoke “proper English.” Yiddish itself was initially seen as a lower-class dialect of German. In fact, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem was actually the well-known writer Solomon Rabinovich, who did not want his reputation sullied by writing in the vernacular. By denying your Yiddishisms any validity, your school lost out on an opportunity to learn about your rich cultural background, and some great literature.

Now, cutting-edge practice values “ethnic studies” and an embracing of difference. Educators no longer view those who speak another language as stupid or uneducated rather as someone who is educated differently. Teachers are educating children to work in a multicultural country and an inter-connected world. Instead, teachers teach students to embrace their own backgrounds, both by informally expressing themselves and through studying their own heritage and respect the perspectives of other cultures. 

While you cited Yiddishisms as words you were told to discard, the new school approach to language difference also applies to words like “ain’t,” often spoken by Black and Latinx students. The dialect commonly spoken by Black Americans is known as “AAVE,” African American Vernacular English, and used to be known as “Ebonics.” Once seen as “broken” or inferior, linguists now understand AAVE to be its own unique dialect, with rules and regular speech patterns. For example, the habitual “be” is used in AAVE to describe things that people do regularly – “Cookie Monster be eating cookies,” one might say – despite often being seen as a slang version of “is.” 

Students speaking AAVE in classrooms are not intentionally being rebellious or obstinate. Instead, they are just using a dialect they are familiar with, as we all do! Now that linguists understand this, teachers are struggling to validate AAVE while still giving students the mainstream language skills the workplace demands. AAVE is not the only example of this – education theorists are encouraging teachers of all students to focus on their students’ ideas, as opposed to how the students express them. Teachers now encourage their young students to create stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, rather than focus on spelling. Spelling and creative writing are two different skills, and students master them at different paces. The goal of respecting non-majority languages or even incorrect spelling is increased communication, which leads to understanding. With mutual understanding and validation, students and teachers can then work on the finer points of English grammar. 

On the one hand, we do a disservice to students if we do not eventually teach them the value of communication in the language of different spheres of life. On the other, we don’t want to denigrate those who speak differently from us. The aim is to communicate. We all know we speak differently to our boss than to our family and perhaps to our friends. School is an in-between space, where we both try to prepare pupils for later life and provide a warm environment for them to grow. Because of these somewhat conflicting goals, education is at the forefront of the cultural-speech conflict.

Like all things, there is a balance to be found. While encouraging students to express and value themselves and their cultures, it is incumbent upon educators to prepare their classes for the more varied world outside. Being socially obligated to code switch may be upsetting, but at many job interviews an “ain’t” will get you rejected. Code switching can be positive, and even necessary. Clearly, you understand this from your own past!

Similar questions are asked about students who do not speak English well enough for their grade level. The debate is ongoing whether total immersion is the best method, or if students should start math and reading skills in their own language or in a bilingual classroom.

Being able to communicate with one’s teacher is important for students; feeling totally lost or denigrated doesn’t help students learn. Our grandparents did manage to learn English through total immersion, yes, but it may have been nice to have an elementary school teacher who understood them!

Ironically, as our economy is becoming more globalized, students in other countries are learning two and three languages – but in America, we are cutting foreign language programs! Now, some educators advocates for dual-immersion classrooms, which mix fluent English speakers with speakers of other languages and have them learn from each other in both languages, as equals. In a globalized workplace, code switching may mean being comfortable communicating in multiple languages, so it only makes sense to me to start that young. In a multicultural society, and a globalized world the ultimate goal should be comfortable in one’s own culture while fitting into many others. 

If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to publisher@americanisraelite.com

 

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