Code Switching

Recognizing, understanding and, ultimately, being our fully authentic selves requires a significant amount of reflection and introspection. In that process, some of us find spaces that feel 'natural' and other spaces that require some element of adapting - whether consciously or subconsciously. In fact, all of us do this to some degree. To wit, who you are around a parent or authority figure is likely to be at least slightly different than who you are around friends and peers. In fact, many of us shift back and forth regularly and seamlessly, without giving this a second thought. This shift in how we speak and how we behave in different spaces is defined by linguists as code switching, the "process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting." NPR's Code Switch goes a bit further, defining it as "exploring [...] the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. In one sense, code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures." 

For many of us, particularly traditionally marginalized people in the U.S., the need or expectation to code switch is driven less by choice, and more by an understanding, whether implicit or explicit, that who we are at home is somehow “less than” the way we are expected to behave, dress, be, or speak in school or business to be considered "appropriate." Code switching in those situations becomes both a self-preservation mechanism and a source of pain and fear. In our efforts as a school community to encourage authenticity and the embracing of self, voice and identity, we must then also address the issue of code switching both in and out of the classroom. And not just in its linguistic roots, which hold significant weight in a community comprised of many nationalities and dual-language learners, but also in the way race, ethnicity, and culture are deeply intertwined in our understanding and experience of code switching.

In her sophomore English class, Upper School for Girls teacher Laura Barber is encouraging the examination of code switching linguistically in all its complicated facets: from informal communications like texting, to the expression of the multiplicity of equally valid - if not explicitly valued - versions of the English language in class, in society, and in literature, to the painful and heavy weight with which many of our community members experience it. This approach allows students to recognize the power and prejudices inherent in language, and to value and appreciate the complexities of grammar within and across English dialects. To facilitate authenticity, we must be able to discuss the ways in which our community implicitly and explicitly defines "acceptability" and how we can create space for everyone to safely bring their whole self to bear in all interactions.


Annie Wright Schools
827 North Tacoma Avenue
Tacoma, WA 98403

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Founded in Tacoma, Washington, in 1884, Annie Wright Schools serve students from age three through high school. Annie Wright Lower and Middle Schools offer coed programs in Preschool through Grade 8, while separate Upper Schools for girls and boys offer day and boarding options in Grades 9 through 12. Annie Wright is proud to be an International Baccalaureate World School.