Code-switching is a powerful psychological tool where an individual uses a certain group's dialect or accent to appease a particular audience. There is a distinct variation in language when speaking to friends, family or authority figures — and code-switching is used to navigate those spaces.
J. Michael Terry, an associate professor in UNC's Department of Linguistics, said it is natural to vary the way one speaks based on situational context.
“We're either consciously or unconsciously varying the way that we speak in response to the context in which we're in, response to the ways in which the context of people that we're around and, a lot of times, how we're likely to be perceived.” Terry said.
In different spaces, not all language is valued equally, and the way people speak can create in-groups and out-groups.
“Those characteristics of language that become associated with people of color have such negative connotations and are viewed from the outside as being somehow not only different from but defective," Terry said. "And that's part and parcel of a view that says that people of color are somehow defective."
Aaliyah Goodman, a senior majoring in global studies and public policy, said she has found herself using less African American vernacular in professional settings than when she's with her friends, because she knows using that specific dialect can be seen as a sign of less education.
“I've been told that I talk like a white girl, which, there are many problems with that, but people tend to see you as different if you speak a certain way,” Goodman said. “They tend to assume things about me based on the way that I speak.”
Terry said whenever he'd watch the news with his father as a child, his father would remind him that their language deviated from the idealized standard of modern English. To this day, he remains interested in how some deviations are treated compared to others.
“You go and watch the news, and what you'll see is that just like people in everyday conversation, that those people in those positions of authority are always deviating in some way from this so-called standard,” Terry said. “But some deviations are racially and ethnically marked, some deviations are marked in terms of class, and so, not all deviations count against you in the same way. Some deviations will allow you to be an authority on TV reading the news, and others will prevent you from being in those positions.”
Terry said people of color feel the need to code-switch because the language they speak and grew up with is not valued in certain spaces. As a teacher, Terry believes his job is to provide students with the skill sets and knowledge they need to succeed in future social and professional settings.
Phonologist Becky Butler and Katya Pertsova, an associate professor in the linguistics department, created a video about dialect diversity to highlight students' individual identities at the University.
“Students, faculty or staff whose dialects might carry less social prestige should understand that their dialects, although they don't carry the same social prestige, have the same logic, value and validity as dialects that — for reasons of historical accident — are considered to be more standard,” Stephany Dunstan, the associate director of the office of assessment at N.C. State University, said.
Goodman believes being able to code-switch is a valuable skill because there are certain settings when the standard dialect of English prevails and is more "appropriate."
“When I go to a restaurant, and I'm like speaking to the waitress, I'm using a different tone of voice that I feel like, I guess is polite,” Goodman said. “Then my friends will look at me like, ‘That was so fake,’ but I feel like it was necessary.”
She has worked in a restaurant setting before and said there's a stereotype that when people of color, specifically Black people, are seated in certain servers' sections, they are going to be loud and not leave a tip. She is conscious of this bias and doesn't want to appear that way to servers herself.
“I think it’s a necessary evil that you have to compromise your authenticity to navigate society," Goodman said.
Terry emphasized that code-switching is not a defect in one's language and is often an asset. People of color show that they can do both and temporarily maneuver how they approach different conversations.
“Should we continue to work to make people understand language diversity as a real diversity issue? Yes," Terry said. "Should we get work to make people clear that these kinds of dialectical differences don't say anything about one's intelligence, don't say anything about their worth? Yes.
“We need to keep beating that drum. We need to keep telling that story.”
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