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The Code-Switcher

Updated on April 30, 2018

In The Atlantic’s April issue, William Brennan wrote about Julie Washington, a speech pathologist who believes that helping kids switch seamlessly between dialects is a key to their success.


I read “The Code-Switcher” in the April issue of The Atlantic with horror. What was described as African-American English was in fact poor grammar. As an African American with undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and Literature, I desperately want African American children to learn standard American English and proper grammar and syntax. These are essential tools for success in the workplace and required for professional and personal mobility. Having our teachers encourage children to speak with poor grammar relegates them to the permanent underclass, which is not where I would like to see future generations of African Americans. While I respect the professor who extols the virtues of respecting the language of another culture, the African-American English described in the article is not a language.

Rachel Oliver
San Diego, Calif.


As welcome as any positive article on the education of African American children is, William Brennan’s falls short. The issue of how to teach language arts to African American children deserves far deeper treatment, for, despite decades during which linguists have been pointing to the problem, we are still throwing thousands of black children in the trash because of the benighted notion of “bad English.”

Brennan gives insufficient credit for curricular approaches like ToggleTalk. Decades-old seminal work by others, e.g., Rebecca Wheeler, Rachel Swords, H. Fogel, and L. C. Ehri, deserves mention. Their research, published considerably earlier than last June, has also shown dramatic improvements in standard English skills and closure of achievement gaps.

The “reigning theory” of why speaking AAE “stymies kids” goes far beyond the pronunciation of words or the “cognitive load” of handling two dialects in school. For one thing, AAE grammar and conversational styles also differ from those of standard English in important ways. But the fundamental factor is racial prejudice. Deep-seated prejudice against AAE produces the silencing effect Ann McCormick Piestrup described in 1973. Now, it is common in socioeconomically-stratified societies for dialects that vary from the dialect of power to be disparaged. But racial prejudice runs so deep in America that condemnation of AAE is nearly universal and very powerful, a fact undergirded by the rejection of the dialect by educated African Americans themselves, and by the flaming controversy over the Oakland teachers’ 1996 proposal.

Nearly 50 years ago, James Sledd exposed this prejudice in his no-holds-barred condemnation of the very notion of bidialectalism, “Bidialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy.” “Instruction in the mother tongue includes formal initiation into the linguistic prejudices of the middle class,” he writes;

The basic assumption of bidialectalism is that the prejudices of middle-class whites cannot be changed but must be accepted and indeed forced on lesser breeds. Upward mobility, it is assumed, is the end [goal] of education, but white power will deny upward mobility to speakers of black English, who must therefore be made to talk white English in their contacts with the white world.

In other words, prejudice against the language African Americans speak is a major part of the systemic and institutional racism that so many deny today—one of the factors that dooms African Americans from their earliest years in school.

AAE was created by slaves who had been intentionally deprived of their origin languages. It is a testament to their endurance and to the human need for community, as language binds a community together. It is high time it was accorded the respect it deserves. Code-switching curricula, while practical, need to be situated in the social context of dialect inequality in the face of prejudice. Children need honest instruction, not only in standard English, but in the reasons behind their need to learn it.

Johanna Rubba, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, Linguistics
Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo

Grover Beach, Calif.


By way of clarification, our ToggleTalk resource is the first supplemental contrastive analysis (not “code-switching”) curriculum developed specifically for young children, by Professor Holly Craig (University of Michigan) with a 2010 research grant by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Last summer, researchers at the University of Maryland were awarded a $3.3 million IES grant to investigate the efficacy of ToggleTalk during the next four years in the Baltimore City Schools. This work follows half a century of scholarly investigation of the intersection between language variation and education, with more than 1,600 published works by 250+ researchers and authors from a handful of disciplines. Most academics seem to agree that differences between home and school language structures are related to students’ literacy acquisition. Yet most school district administrators are still unaware of this knowledge, and resulting understandings and classroom methods. Teachers (mostly in California because that state has defined Standard English Learners) have employed contrastive analysis methods without controversy for several decades to help older students learn to shift back and forth between various non-Mainstream U.S. English language systems and Academic Classroom English. Providing young children with contrastive analysis instruction promises to finally help educators prevent long-standing achievement gaps believed by many public education administrators (and the public) to be intractable.

Robert Meyer and Greg McIntosh
Co-founders, Ventris Learning
Sun Prairie, Wisc. and Vero Beach, Fla.


As a child, I was entranced by the dialect of the black kids I went to school with in Georgia (no one said “African American” in those days), and now, many years later, I’m painstakingly learning to speak Swiss German, so I found William Brennan’s “The Code-Switcher” fascinating.

Like almost all German-speaking Swiss, my wife and her family are diglossic (a term related to code-switching)—fluent in both “High German” (aka “written German”) and their local Swiss German dialect. Even my mentally handicapped great-nephew can make the switch effortlessly. Swiss German mostly isn’t taught in schools (except to some non-German-speaking immigrants)—it’s assumed that kids will learn it at home, and they do.

One difference between Switzerland and the U.S. is that there is no racial or class stigma attached to Schwyzerdütsch—everyone speaks it, from janitors to members of parliament. The Swiss are proud of their ability to speak and write High German when appropriate, but equally proud of their own local dialects (of which there are actually dozens), and of the fact that Germans can’t understand them.

African-American English is a vital part of American culture, and it should be celebrated, not deprecated.

Charles Morris
St Petersburg, Fla.


[Brennan’s] Atlantic article notes that the idea that African American children should become bidialectal is controversial. It is. One opposing view is that there’s no reason to encourage the use of the home dialect because the goal is for children to be proficient in the “standard” one. Code-switching just increases the cognitive and linguistic loads on children who are already behind in reading and language. Another view is that having to learn a second dialect is another version of having to be twice as good to succeed. Which dialect functions as the “standard” is determined by social, historical, and economic factors, not linguistic ones. The disadvantages associated with using AAE are due to social and cultural conventions that are unjust. Some educators, viewing themselves as agents of social justice and cultural change, believe the goal should be to create alternatives to a biased system rather than perpetuate it.

There’s a lot more to these issues, obviously, which are also sensitive given the long history of mischaracterizations of the language of Black people in America.  Which brings me to my final point. “Dialect” has to be one of the linguistic concepts that is least well understood by the general public, including many minority dialect speakers themselves, teachers, educators who develop curricula and instructional practices, and the measurement people who construct standardized assessments, among others. Language variation is a well-studied, well-understood phenomenon, but what is known hasn’t been absorbed into the culture the way that, say, the importance of reading to children has been.  This is a major obstacle to addressing the issues Julie [Washington] raises.

I think that those of us who study language need to step forward on these issues. When asked about dialect, many of us fall back on Weinreich’s aphorism that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” That statement is relevant to the fact that (a) the boundary between language and dialect is graded rather than absolute, and (b) what a code is conventionally called is affected by nonlinguistic factors. Hindi and Urdu, the textbook case, are treated as distinct languages but they are more like dialectal variations of a common language. Their identification as two languages is abetted by their use by different racial/ethnic/religious groups, concentrated in different regions, and being written with different writing systems.  ...

OK, the conventional labels aren’t linguistically reliable; can we move on?  Languages have identifiable dialects. English has a lot of them: these folks studied 46 (including pidgins and creoles), characterizing how much they overlap with respect to key morphosyntactic features. All of the dialects are linguistically valid in the sense of exhibiting systematic variation resulting from general principles governing language change. Labov and others’ critical contribution was to show that AAE is linguistically unremarkable, an example of dialectal variation as it occurs in many languages and cultures.

The linguistic integrity of AAE isn’t at issue, but its sociolinguistic status is. It is a low prestige, oral dialect spoken by a minority population with a lower income distribution in a country with a history of racial bias. There’s substantial evidence that use of this lower status dialect can impede progress in school, not because of characteristics of the dialect or dialect speakers, but simply because the home and school dialects differ. Hence [Washington’s] recommendation to promote code-switching.

Mark Seidenberg
Vilas Research Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Author,
Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It
Madison, Wisc.

Excerpt from a “Language Log” blog post


William Brennan replies:

I’d like to correct an unfortunate but widely held misconception in the first letter: African-American English is not “poor grammar” or bastardized English; it is a well-studied linguistic system that follows a consistent set of rules, just like French, Korean, or Swahili. Nor is AAE the dialect of an “underclass”: People at all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder speak African-American English, but this fact is obscured because middle-class and wealthy AAE speakers are more likely to be able to code-switch to the language’s “standard” dialect. Finally, Rachel Oliver’s fear that “having our teachers encourage children to speak [African-American English] relegates them to the permanent underclass” misses Julie Washington’s crucial observation that speaking multiple dialects fluently is a cultural and educational asset.

I spoke to Dr. Holly Craig at length while reporting this article and benefited from our conversations; her research on “child AAE”—much of which she carried out with Julie Washington—deeply informed my thinking. I also appreciated talking to Robert Meyer about ToggleTalk, a supplemental curriculum Dr. Craig developed which, as promotional materials explain, is “designed to foster … code-switching skills” in young children. The University of Maryland project Meyer and Greg McIntosh highlighted is the first extensive, rigorously controlled study of the academic benefits of code-switching lessons, and I’m looking forward to the results.

Dr. Johanna Rubba makes a point worth repeating: “Children need honest instruction, not only in standard English, but in the reasons behind their need to learn it.” Teachers looking for help on that front might check out the work of the sociolinguists Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson.