Code-switching on Morning Edition

15 Apr


Code Switch is the name of a new project at NPR focusing on race, ethnicity and culture. The head of the project’s blog, Gene Demby, introduced it on Morning Edition today. (Morning Edition is a good name—at 5:50am I awoke to a call from my sister in Iowa who was excited to hear my voice on her work commute). Gene asked me to say a few words about what happens when people code-switch—that is, shift between one way of speaking and another.

Often “code switching” is about switching languages–maybe you grew up speaking Spanish but you switch back and forth between Spanish and English when you’re talking to your siblings. But even if you only speak one language, you are still shifting it around, like when you move between informal and highfalutin. Different “linguistic resources” (pronunciations, spellings, words, syntactic constructions) have different associations.

What you might not guess from my clip is that my mom is not actually from the South (though since this aired she has started signing emails, “Your Southern Cheryl Belle”). So why is it that she occasionally has a Southern accent? The answer has to do with the fact that there are all sorts of linguistic resources out there for us to draw on. In America, Southern accents are so prominent that even if you’ve never met anyone from the South, you still might draw(l) on Southern speech sometimes.

Depending on what you’re talking about and who you’re talking to, you may consciously or subconsciously shift to bring in some set of associations.  For example, Southern accents have happy things like politeness associated with them and more negative things like stupidity (check out work by folks like Dennis Preston and Kathryn Campbell-Kibler). I hope it goes without saying that speaking in one language, accent, or style doesn’t make you polite or rude, smart or stupid. The associative nature of language is useful: it gives us shortcuts and expressiveness. But there is a darker side: we may dismiss people because we think we know everything we need to know about them after they open their mouths. We don’t.

Most of the world speaks more than one language, and so many people regularly switch between languages mid-sentence. These shifts do carry meaning: a change in sentiment, privacy, or simply to capture some expression that cannot be truly translated (check out Peter Auer and Carol Myers Scotton). Natural language processing systems have tended to ignore code-switching: at best, they give sentence-level identification. Our systems are sensitive to shifts wherever they happen and understand them as meaningful moments.

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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