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  • Writer's pictureElijah Andes

Code-Switching in the Writing Center: A Study

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

The concept of code-switching has long been of interest to me, both educationally as well as intellectually. Code-switching, or the ability shift between different modes or discourses of dialects and languages, is a learned skill that becomes innate for many of us as we grow older. Code-switching is also a skill that becomes vital for social survival, to that point that code-switching from atmosphere to atmosphere, dialect to dialect, and even language to language, becomes a natural process for most of us. Josephine Singo, in an article examining multi-lingual code-switching between doctors and their patients, experienced a phenomenon in which doctors and patients would often speak primarily in English, but would unconsciously switch to Shona (their native or tribal language) occasionally while speaking. The reason for this code-switching from language to language was not lingual ineptitude, as some might assume. Instead, Singo concluded that the doctors were code-switching from language to language in order to build rapport with their clients, writing that "code-switching can be an integral aspect of effective interpersonal communication" (7). By code-switching from English to Shona, the doctors showed respect for their culture and built a commonality with their clients that served to build the working relationship between the two parties.

Moreover, a perceived failure to code-switch 'correctly,' or in a way that facilitates communication, can result in social ostracizing or judgment. Failure to code-switch can be associated with social ineptitude, and those who are perceived as being unable to code-switch well will often be 'othered,' or perceived as being unable to fit in with a given society or culture to an acceptable degree. Those who have read James Paul Gee will likely find this idea applicable to many of his thoughts on Discourse. Gee's idea that ," there are only 'fluent speakers' and 'apprentices' (metaphorically speaking, because remember, Discourses are not just ways of talking, but ways of talking, acting, thinking, valuing, etc.)" (6), can easily be seen as an ideology parallel to code-switching. The failure to code-switch accurately from one language to another, or in Gee's voice, from one discourse to another, creates the sense that the individual failing to code-switch, or discourse-switch, fluently, does not 'belong' in whatever sphere they are attempting to fit into. For instance, when writing about the code-switching of Indonesian presidents, Mannix Foster and Alistair Welsh write that

"Indonesia's current president Joko Widodo's lack of English proficiency has attracted criticism from some quarters within Indonesia, with some even arguing that this limited proficiency makes him unsuitable for the role of president. By contrast, Indonesia's previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), attracted serious criticism for what was regarded as excessive use of English" (1-2).

In other words, the current Indonesian president is criticized because he fails to code-switch from Indonesian to English when making public speeches. The Indonesian people worry that this might make him seem unable to communicate effectively in English, an unfavorable trait for a political leader on the international stage. Alternatively, the former president was criticized for code-switching away from Indonesian to English excessively, which the Indonesian people perceived as an abandonment of pride in their culture and language. In this way, we see that code-switching is a vital aspect of social and cultural success. Perhaps more importantly, however, we see that it is a learned process – if it was not, Indonesian presidents would not have such difficulty mastering the ability to code-switch in the political arena.

However, what does all of this have to do with tutoring writing? A surprising amount, I would argue. If code-switching from dialect to dialect within a language, or from language to language within a speaking pattern, is a process that is either naturally acquired or learned, then the same can be said of code-switching from dialect to dialect or from language to language within the context of writing. The main differentiator here is that code-switching in writing is a much less ingrained process than code-switching when speaking or conveying body language is. The academic code-switching that many students are expected to do, namely from whatever discourse they are used to conveying themselves in over to standard academic English, is an impenetrable process for many students. The difficulties ESL (English Second Language), ELL (English Language Learners), and AAE (African American English) speakers face when asked to code-switch from their native discourse to standard academic English is almost impossible to overstate. They must step out of whatever comfort they have acquired with spoken English. They must then operate in a written discourse dictated by an anglo, patriarchal, sexist structure with which they have no familiarity.

It is of little wonder, then, that teaching students how to code-switch effectively has become an issue of paramount importance to many educators recently. Furthermore, in the writing center, it is of no less importance than it is in the classroom. An integral part of writing center pedagogy revolves around finding the student's 'inner voice' – in connecting the student's personality with writing standard English in an academic setting and allowing them to represent themselves authentically even in standard academic English writing assignments. To this effect, by teaching students practical ways to code-switch, we can also teach them how to think critically about the malleable nature of language. If we are able to understand how dialects and languages differ from one another, then we are also able to perceive similarities between them. This re-contextualizes language, away from a series of arbitrary systems, and towards one larger all-encompassing entity that is able to be molded to fit different contexts – i.e, writing a rap song, as opposed to writing a dissertation, as opposed to writing an award acceptance speech. By introducing students to this mindset, we encourage them to learn what their own personal 'voice' is when they write, as well as create ways for them to bring that 'voice' with them across genres of writing. This, in turn, can help students see standard academic English, not as a threat, but instead as yet one more 'mode' of writing, which they can mold their voice to.

To this end, Ronald Beghetto writes a fascinating piece concerning the subject of "ideational code-switching." Baghetto writes that

"Ideational code-switching, similar to linguistic code-switching, represents the ability of a student to move between intrapersonal creative interpretations (i.e., novel ideas that are personally meaningful) and interpersonal, creative expression (i.e., novel ideas judged to be appropriate given the constraints of a task or activity)" (1).

In other words, how do we encourage students to interpret creativity in an academically useful way? This, I believe, attacks code-switching at its foundational level. Before even concerning ourselves with encouraging students to code-switch their writing, speaking, or reading to an academic environment, we must ask them to code-switch their thought process from their internal dialogue to an academic dialogue, while simultaneously attempting to preserve who the student 'is' as a thinker.

To this end, Baghetto suggests that teachers focus on encouraging a sort of functional creativity within the classroom. Students' creativity and originality are to be encouraged, as long as they can discover a way to apply those ideas to the academic setting they are required to be in. He calls these types of nuanced, malleable creativity' little-C creativity' (combining two things in an inventive way, such as drawing connections between to apparently dissimilar pieces of literature) and 'mini-C creativity' (discovering a moderately inventive way to do something, such as decoding a poem differently than one might typically), respectively. By encouraging these types of creativity in the classroom, we are asking learners to be inventive, while encouraging them to ideationally code-switch their originality and inventiveness to an academic environment. This is a concept innately applicable to writing centers, which revolve around improving not only students' writing but also around allowing students to find their own 'voice' with which to write. By incorporating ideational code-switching into our writing center pedagogy, we encourage students to express themselves creatively, while also encouraging them to succeed academically.

In league with this idea, if ideational code-switching represents a certain foundational level of the concept of code-switching, then the next level of that concept is applying code-switching to language – essentially, asking 'how do students learn to criticize the discourses within which they operate, and become meta-cognizant of their code-switching process?' To this end, John White and Kristen Hawley both have exciting ideas.

Hawley writes about the code-switch that students must make from 'text-speak' to academic language, and what impact this has on writing. Hawley writes that as our society becomes more digitized, students will become less and less reticent about including 'text-speak' in their academic writing assignments, whether teachers like it or not. This further emphasizes the malleable and evolutionary nature of language that was mentioned earlier in this paper; however, what is perhaps more critical to the discussion is Hawley's approach to this phenomenon. Instead of attempting to restrict standardized academic writing to exclude such 'text-speak militantly,' Hawley encourages teachers to incorporate 'text-speak' into student writing assignments in the form of assignments such as blogs or surveys conducted using twitter. By showing students appreciation for a dialect in which they are familiar, Hawley writes that teachers can encourage students to cultivate a respect for standard academic English in the spirit of reciprocity. By aiding students in bringing their dialects and discourses into academic writing, and allowing them to code-switch less restrictively from one to the other, we can increase their skills in standard academic English more quickly than we would be able to if we adopted a more conservative or aggressive approach to the same subject. This in turn also allows students to identify when and how they code-switch, creating a meta-cognitive process for students to evaluate the appropriateness of their code-switching through. This ideology of meta-cognizant self-critique through encouraged practice is readily applicable to writing center pedagogy. By helping students understand why and how they code-switch, we not only give them the tools to recognize their code-switching habits and cease them if they so wish, but we also encourage them to find an 'inner voice' that can remain constant in their writing no matter what discourse they are code-switching to, calling back to the theory of "ideational code switching" explored by Baghetto earlier. This cultivating of a consistent meta-cognizant approach to writing for students is a crucial component of writing center instruction, and articles such as this one allow us as tutors to more easily facilitate this goal successfully.

John White encourages the reader to view code-switching not as something negative, or as a difficulty only a select few unfortunate students face, but rather as an innate part of being a human and possessing a language. Code-switching, argues White, happens everywhere, and happens continuously (recall Singo's writing on doctor-patient interactions as described earlier in this paper for an example of this constancy). White adds to this, writing that whether we are reading Shakespeare, a philosophy paper, or attempting and failing to decode Beowulf, we are always relying on our ability to code-switch in order to function linguistically, and as a result, in order to function literately. White's article further emphasizes the point made earlier that if a language is malleable than academic English should not be seen as a 'norm' that must be conformed to, but should instead be viewed as merely one more code that requires switching over to in order to attain. This has critical applications to Writing Center pedagogy – by recognizing how often we code-switch in our day-to-day life (speaking between friends, listening to music, engaging in media or entertainment, writing a paper, giving a formal presentation – these all require different 'codes,' and therefore require code-switching from one activity to the other in order for any of them to be completed), we can realize the hypocrisy of expecting students to be able to fluently code-switch to standardized English at our whim. By acknowledging code-switching as a constant engagement required for understanding an always-changing and malleable language, we can expand our pedagogy to help all students, not just those whose writing we can confine to specific parameters.

In conclusion, code-switching has a dramatic impact on a student's ability to write in a way that allows them to 'fit' into an academic setting. Thus, the correct tutelage of code-switching in writing centers is an issue of utmost importance. Should we fail to teach students how to code-switch effectively in their writing, their writing may be ostracized by their professors in much the same way the citizens of Indonesia have ostracized their presidents. To this end, tutors must keep in mind some particular aspects of code-switching when working with students who code-switch in their writing.

Firstly, students must be encouraged to view language as a malleable entity that it is within their power to mold. By encouraging this mindset, we allow students to bring their 'inner voice' to whichever assignment they so choose, and then mold that voice to fit the parameters of the assignment. This destigmatizes both code-switching and standard academic language, both of which are essential to student success. Secondly, students must create a meta-cognitive approach to code-switching in which they understand how and why they code-switch. This, in addition to viewing language as a malleable entity, will allow students to completely meld their own personal 'inner voice' with whatever writing they are expected to do. This gives students the ability not only to understand that any assignment can be molded to fit a student's 'inner voice' authentically, but also they will be able to evaluate when in the context of their writing the appearance of that code-switched inner voice is appropriate. Thirdly, and finally, we as tutors have an obligation to the student to view code-switching as a positive process that allows students to approach academic assignments more authentically. We also have an obligation to students to destigmatize code-switching and to make them feel excited to incorporate their voice into the realm of standard academic English, rather than feel ambivalent that there is no way to both remain themselves in their writing and achieve their desired results academically. By dispelling stigmas surrounding code-switching, we further create and cultivate the image of the writing center as a place for writing in which all discourses, dialects, and languages are welcomed and encouraged to succeed.

Works Cited

Beghetto, Ronald A. “Ideational Code-Switching: Walking the Talk About Supporting

Student Creativity in the Classroom.” Roeper Review, vol. 29, no. 4, June 2007, pp. 265–270. Teacher Reference Center, EBSCOhost, Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.

Foster, Mannix, and Alistair Welsh. “The Controversial Code-Switching of an Indonesian

President.” South East Asia Research, vol. 25, no. 4, 2017, pp. 395–411., doi:10.1177/0967828x17740459.

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of

Education, vol. 171, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5–25.

Turner, Kristen Hawley. “Flipping the Switch: Code-Switching from Text Speak to

Standard English.” The English Journal, vol. 98, no. 5, 2009, pp. 60–65. JSTOR, JSTOR,

White, John W. “De-Centering English: Highlighting the Dynamic Nature of the English

Language to Promote the Teaching of Code-Switching.” The English Journal, vol. 100, no. 4, 2011, pp. 44–49. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Singo, Josephine. "Code-Switching in Doctor-Patient Communication." Nawa: Journal

of Language and Communication, no. 1, 2014, p. 48. EBSCOhost,


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