The Student News Site of West Albany High School

WHIRLWIND

The Student News Site of West Albany High School

WHIRLWIND

The Student News Site of West Albany High School

WHIRLWIND

I said what?

The concept of code-switching and why linguistic diversity should be celebrated

Ever since they were young, senior B Gutierrez-Villanueva, who is non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns, has been expected to speak a certain way. At home, they speak English with their father but Spanish with their mother, and at school they speak exclusively in English—a disconnect that has gone on to affect the way they hold their identity and culture. They describe this as a line drawn between what people see as understandable, and what is most comfortable for them.

     “I feel the pressure to speak English instead of Spanish because that’s the way people will understand [me],” Gutierrez-Villanueva said, referring to their experience growing up, “but Spanish was the place where I was most comfortable speaking.” 

     This experience can be described as ‘code-switching,’ which describes the act of switching between a dialect or language. Valeria Ochoa, Doctor and Assistant Professor of Spanish Linguistics and Heritage Education at Oregon State University, says it is a very complex linguistic phenomenon. 

     “There are people that believe there are distinct languages that exist in the brain, [and] if you were to try to see those languages, they could be separate entities. We can think of them in this case as codes,” Ochoa said. “So the idea would be that you’re navigating different codes. People often refer to Spanglish as a type of code switching between English and Spanish.”

     Gutierrez-Villanueva recognizes this as being especially relevant to their experience as a bilingual person growing up.

     “I would use Spanish words to substitute for phrases that I didn’t know in English,” Gutierrez-Villanueva said. “For example, braid—trenza or zapato—shoe.” This would be called inter-sentential code switching, or switching between languages in the middle of a sentence.

     Since they were exposed to English much more frequently than Spanish, especially in school, Gutierrez-Villanueva stopped using Spanish interchangeably with English 

     “I would pretty much only use [Spanish] with my mom,” they said. “Years of code switching in school, and having that still be present in my house, has led to me not knowing as much Spanish as, say, my cousins.”

     Gutierrez-Villanueva contrasts this with the experience of their older sister, a first generation immigrant from Mexico.

     “I remember at one point, we were talking about how different school was for us, and I [asked], ‘Why did you fail so many classes?’” Guitierrez-Villanueva said. “And she was like, ‘Well I was learning English, my main language was Spanish, so that’s why.’”

     Although there has been growth in addressing this problem since (their sister graduated in 2014), there are still steps that need to be taken to provide more classroom resources to bilingual students or students learning a new language entirely. 

     “Teacher trainings are the number one thing, [and] we don’t have enough options, but there are places like the National Heritage Language Resource Center through UCLA, and a lot of other wonderful people doing work that often is free,” Ochoa said. 

     Ochoa emphasizes that many of the pressures faced by bilingual and multilingual people to code switch or to speak almost exclusively one language in school is an oversight that has a major effect on their experience with academics. 

     “[If] your brain is used to using everything all at once, when you try to restrict that, it’s actually the opposite of natural for bilinguals or multilinguals,” Ochoa said. “They are forcing them to try to behave like a monolingual Spanish speaker and a monolingual English speaker at the same time, which is not something that they’ve ever had to do.”

     For this reason, having resources to support multilingual students is incredibly important and will help students to feel more comfortable in class. Besides teacher trainings and additional resources, these disparities can be addressed through greater compassion, learning and understanding. 

     “I’m not going to say that language teachers have bad intentions when they create certain language policies, it’s just sometimes lack of familiarity with how heritage or bilingual or multilingual [speakers] grow up and what’s naturally going to help them continue to use the language,” Ochoa said. “It’s like anything else—just because you’re not in a community doesn’t mean you can’t learn about them.”

     Creating a classroom environment that fosters linguistic diversity and holds space for bilingual and multilingual students could help them to connect with their cultural identity, especially if they don’t feel as much pressure to act or speak differently in an academic setting. Gutierrez-Villanueva suggests that a having time to speak with other Spanish speakers in school may have helped them to maintain more proficiency in the language. 

     “If I had a Spanish speaking group that I talked to, I would have possibly connected with other Spanish speaking people about things like our upbringing,” Gutierrez-Villanueva said. 

     This would not only help them to get more practice outside of the home, but also to build a stronger community with people of similar backgrounds. Unfortunately, Gutierrez-Villanueva’s loss of proficiency in Spanish speaking has led to a disconnect with the way they understand and interact with their Mexican culture. 

     “There’s kind of a language barrier because my mom is the only person that speaks Spanish to me, and that culminated into this hatred for something because I didn’t understand it,” Gutierrez-Villanueva said. “She wanted to show me cultural stuff, but I would push that away because I was feeling hurt by not being understood by her.”

     Gutierrez-Villanueva, in hindsight, has recognized the importance of connecting with their heritage. They’ve taken Spanish classes at West, and also made efforts to open more communication with their mom despite the language barrier. 

     “I didn’t think to ask her any questions about what she did when she was in Mexico,” they said, “and when I got out of that fog, I started asking her more questions.”

     Linguistic identity, similar to any trait or characteristic, decides so much of how an individual is perceived, and being a part of a minority group can make it difficult to feel accepted and seen when faced with stereotypes and a disparate amount of barriers to overcome. Moving past these perceptions and prejudices means finding validity by looking inward.

     “Being a woman that’s brown that shows up in a space, people have ideas just by looking at me,” Ochoa said. “I’m like, why would I want to live in a world or in a space the rest of my life pretending to be someone else?”

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