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A Habit: Code switching and Reading the Room

Columns | April 6, 2018

In a linguistic context, wikipedia (my credible source of choice) defines code switching as: “when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. Multilinguals, speakers of more than one language, sometimes use elements of multiple languages when conversing with each other.”

 

Being bilingual (in this context we’re just going to be referring to Bengali and English because of the scope of this article!)  means always having twice as many choices in description.

 

It can mean knowing one word connotes an emotion in Bengali that just cannot be replicated with American English, while a technical process in English would be a real trek to explain in Bengali. A lot of that has to do with the mastery (or lack of mastery) I hold for either language, and how that impacts the other. But one thing is certain: there are constantly two voices speaking at the same time in my head and choosing which one comes out of my mouth depends on who I’m talking to.

 

The linguistic definition is important, because it explains the very basics of code switching. But, I extend that there’s an alternate definition that I think is a lot more interesting, and a lot more culturally pertinent especially when it comes to being a person of color.

 

NPR podcast Code Switch describes it  “more broadly” as a process in which “many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We’re hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities—sometimes within a single interaction”.

 

We are really out here code switching not just from one language to another language altogether but making specific distinctions within ONE language! Which I think is fascinating, and interesting and amazing and hard all at once.

 

Much of code switching comes as a survival mechanism; a skill used to acculturate and assimilate and stay safe in certain spaces where speaking and acting a certain way is less acceptable than in other spaces.

 

But sometimes it also feels like a superpower, like I can switch between multiple modes and still be seen as myself without those who I am speaking to knowing about the other modes that exist—like I’m this prolific language and culture traverser and most times only I know when I’m doing it.

 

Last week I inadvertently caught myself code switching while speaking to group of white folk about indie music (is anyone even surprised that indie music is what I was talking about at a White liberal arts college with a few artsy White peers?). My voice was modulated an octave above normal, my words were softened, and I was saying the word “space” a lot.

 

Not even half an hour later, I was having a conversation with my Bengali best friend from home about how college was kicking both of our butts. As if by instinct, my voice lowered, my words quickened in pace, and I began to use Bengali words in an English sentence, interspersed with a lot of “oooof”s.

 

It’s not unusual for me to notice retroactively when it has happened; when I’ve discussed Rex Orange County effortlessly with a group of white folk and when I’ve discussed choosing a humanities major and what that means in the Bengali community within minutes of each other with different people. In that case of code switching, it’s not just the content that changes, but also the pace, language, and ease with which these things are described. Much of code switching is a manifestation of comfort and discomfort, and managing my own speaking to be in tune with both of those feelings.

 

When it comes to performance and comedy, I see code switching as the same thing as “reading the room”. Knowing which jokes will work and in what contexts, in other words working an audience, is a skill that I think comics of color specifically, know all too well. Many comics of color have even made it the basis of their material, (the most pertinent example I can think of here is Key and Peele) and I’ve always found it to be an important part of the craft.

 

I don’t know if code switching is ever done by choice, but I do know that it can be funny, and that’s a lot of what matters, if not all!