Inclusive Language Series: What is Code-switching?

Code-switching was a term originally coined by linguists to explain the act of mixing languages within a conversation. Below is a basic example using an interchange of English and Spanish.

Kevin: “Hi, Stephanie! ¿Cómo estás?”
Stephanie: “Hola, Kevin! I’m well, y tu?”

Since the term was coined in the 1950s, it has been broadened to include changes that marginalized folks make to fit in with the predominant cultural group. The broadened definition arose sometime in the 1970s by Black activists trying to bring awareness to how code-switching was being used as a survival tactic within the Black community. A tactic that involved Black folks adapting their speech and behavior to assimilate into predominantly white spaces in order to be viewed as “professional”.

AAVE or African American Vernacular English is a variation of English natively spoken by working/middle-class African Americans. AAVE has been around since the early 1600s, which is a few hundred years older than the formal definition of code-switching. Professionalism standards are often rooted in white patriarchal ways of being that are predisposed to support or punish specific behaviors or languages, like AAVE. Since language and behaviors are often rooted in culture, these standards inherently benefit some ethnic groups while directly disadvantaging others. In organizational environments that lack diversity and inclusive work culture, marginalized folks have to make difficult decisions regarding assimilation.

While code-switching to assimilate into a job or class may not sound like the end of the world to some, it can have significant psychological and emotional impacts. Folks who opt to assimilate often feel like they are giving up a part of their identity, culture, or heritage in an unfair transaction for a living wage or academic achievement. Code-switching is quite literally a survival skill. Without it, marginalized folks can be passed up for professional opportunities, including promotions within their current organizations.

The definition of code-switching will likely continue to expand and incorporate more social identities and environmental contexts. As it does, it’s important that we take time to acknowledge the term’s history.

Reflective Questions

  • Do you feel you have engaged in code-switching?
  • How do you support an inclusive culture, whether at work or in the classroom?
  • Have you adopted AAVE in ways that would be considered cultural appropriation?
  • Have you needed to change aspects of yourself in order to fit in? How did that feel?

Upcoming Holidays & Observances

  • March 20: Ostara, a celebration of the spring equinox commemorated by Pagans and Wiccans. It is observed as a time to mark the coming of the spring and the fertility of the land.
  • March 20–21: Naw-Rúz, the Bahá’í New Year, is a holiday celebrated on the vernal equinox.
  • March 21–22: Nowruz/Norooz, Persian New Year, a day of joy, celebration, and renewal. It is held annually on the spring equinox.
  • March 21: International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed annually in the wake of the 1960 killing of 69 people at a demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in South Africa. The United Nations proclaimed the day in 1966 and called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
  • March 22-April 21 (sundown to sundown): Ramadan, an Islamic holiday marked by fasting, praise, prayer, and devotion of Islam.
  • March 25: International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a United Nations inter-national observation that offers the opportunity to honor and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system. First observed in 2008, the international celebration also aims to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice.
  • March 25: Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, a Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus.