This afternoon, I heard an interview on NPR with Makeba Wilbourn, a psychology professor at Duke who studies language and gesture development. She describes how as a biracial woman, she needed to learn to navigate through different contexts: school, at home with her white mother, at home with her black father, etc. She discovered early on that certain behaviors and ways of speaking received different responses depending on the setting. She says, for instance, that her mother saw eye contact as a sign of honesty and gesturing as indicative of anger, while her father’s side viewed eye contact as disrespectful and a lack of gesturing as lack of engagement. As she grew up, she realized that it was necessary to “switch codes” in order to be successful.
Later in the interview, Wilbourn plays clips of a football player as an example of someone who switches codes very effectively. In one video, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman talks about his “meticulous attention to detail.” Wilbourn immediately cuts to banter between Sherman and his teammates, in which he tells them, “You ain’t never worry ’bout thing.” She explains that Sherman is incredibly savvy because of his ability to transition between contexts and adapt appropriately to each one. She says that she uses these clips when working with young African American boys to teach them how to “do the hussle.” The hussle, she elaborates, is doing what you have to do in order to succeed in a certain environment. Often, people will accuse others of “selling out” or being fake, when in reality they may actually be adapting. Wilbourn cites the hussle as the reason Barack Obama sounds “white” during press conferences but more “black” when visiting Howard University. Moreover, the hussle is not necessarily conscious. When someone is bi-dialectal, they might not even notice when they switch.
Wilbourn continues that she believes educators need to recognize and teach code switching. She wants teachers to see academic language-which she refrains from calling “proper” or “mainstream”–like a school uniform. When a child is in the classroom, speaking a certain way is the key to success in that specific environment. However, once the child goes home, it is OK to take that uniform off. Both academic language and the “language of home” provide children with essential tools, and the former is not more correct than the latter. Our schools tell children differently. Wilbourn shares results from a study she conducted at a Durham elementary school, revealing that the highest levels of dialect variation (e.g. African American English) occur in the youngest grades. As the children get older, the dialect variation drops off, but more so in African American girls than boys. Wilbourn hypothesizes that this could be because boys tend to spend more time with each other, like on the playground, while girls tend to get more one-on-one time with the teacher. Boys, in this case, seem to not learn the art of code switching as efficiently, which could result in grave miscommunication down the road. Wilbourn warns that authority figures might see this absence of code switching as a refusal to switch, leading to unfair punishment or worse.
This misconception assumes that when people don’t code switch, it’s because they aren’t motivated–ignoring the possibility that maybe they haven’t learned how to make the transition. Furthermore, Wilbourn dispels the myth that it is an issue of motivation. She says that the dropping point for dialect variation is 3rd grade: the first year of standardized testing. When children get their EOG scores back and realize that the way they talk can translate to poor scores in reading, they will begin to see the way they speak as wrong. Wilbourn’s data shows that EOG test scores in 3rd grade predict dialect variation motivation in 4th grade, and then 4th grade EOG scores. Additionally, educators have wrongly put many students who speak African American English on learning disability tracks simply due to their dialects, when they actually belong in Accelerated Reading. On the other hand, Wilbourn says that she’s also seen teachers incorrectly deem students who genuinely have a language disorder as just speakers of AAE. Her goal is to help break this association between variation and disorder.
This story reminded me of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy of 1996. A school district wanted students speaking AAE to receive some instruction in their dialect, thinking that this method could help them learn. TESOL (Teachers of English to Speaks of Other Languages) responded that “research and experience have shown that children learn best if teachers respect the home language and use it as a bridge in teaching the language of the school and wider society.” Though other educators and many linguists praised the proposal, many met it with criticism. What are your thoughts?