Chelsea Privette knows a little about “code switching”―changing the way one speaks based on the audience you’re talking to, the setting you’re in, or the topic you’re addressing. As a 9-year-old, she entered the public school system after spending her early school years on the Air Force base where her father served in the military. Her African American schoolmates observed that Privette and her sisters “talked white” as opposed to African American English (AAE), the dialect most of them spoke. Growing up on the base, Privette spoke only Mainstream American English (MAE), the standard U.S. dialect.
By seventh grade, however, she had unconsciously absorbed and adopted AAE. Overhearing Privette on the phone with a friend one day, her mother commented, “If I didn’t know you, I would not know that you were a straight-A student.”
She learned the term code-switching as a graduate student in communication disorders at North Carolina Central University.
“It was a skill I had developed naturally as a young student,” says Privette.
But she also realized that many non-standard dialect speakers don’t possess the tools to navigate the expectations of mainstream society, to their detriment. “The inability to speak MAE has social consequences that affect educational and employment opportunities, social well-being, and consequently, access to health care,” she observes. “In fact, some non-standard dialect speakers do not even attempt to engage in code-switching because ‘talking white’ is not accepted by their community.”
On top of that, schools don’t always take the most productive approach to helping minority students acquire MAE skills.
“When students come into the classroom with a non-standard dialect acquired from birth―the language of their community, the dialect of their peer group at school―a few hours in the classroom where they may or may not be ‘corrected’ is not enough for them to acquire a second dialect,” says Privette. Students may recognize there is a difference between the dialects, but not how to resolve that difference.
Furthermore, “correcting” students when speaking “bad English” can be counterproductive.
“Dialect―whether shared with a regional, social, or ethnic group―is an integral part of our culture and our self-identity,” says Privette. “The way that dialectal differences have typically been addressed in the classroom perpetuates feelings of inferiority experienced by many minority students who may already be marginalized socially or economically, and who believe that ‘white kids are smarter.’”
That’s why, for her Schweitzer Fellowship project, Privette developed Realizing Identity Through Success and Experience (RISE), a program that takes a cultural approach to teaching minority teens MAE.
“The purpose isn’t to replace the students’ dialect or change their cultural identity, but to add to their linguistic repertoire in order to optimize their educational experience,” Privette explains of the program, which is located at Holton Career and Resource Center in Durham, N.C. which is affiliated with both the Durham Public Schools system and the Durham Parks and Recreation Department, the latter of which is hosting Privette’s project. “Although code-switching is the cornerstone of the program, it is the foundation for a greater purpose, which is to encourage students to value their education by exposing them to new fields and opportunities and equipping them with information and resources to reach their goals.”
Program activities include the development of reading and writing skills along with professional skills like applying and interviewing for college or employment. Privette’s hope for her students is that “they leave the program with an intrinsic motivation for success and a heightened awareness of their value and potential so that as they push past challenges to reach their goals, they’ll serve as examples for other students in their community and in their classroom.”
The most encouraging moments leading the program come when Privette hears students giving feedback to one another about their work. She also relishes encouraging students to pursue professions based on their interests, rather than what they think sounds good or will be most lucrative. She recalls helping one student begin an essay by repeating his prior claim that he wanted to be engineer. “He said, ‘I said that? I was just saying that because it sounded good. I really want to be a movie director.’ His eyes lit up as he went on to tell me who inspires him and why, directors like Spike Lee and Tyler Perry.”
While her focus is on helping her students learn to communicate in different ways, RISE is also forcing Privette to continue honing her communication skills, too.
“The most surprising element of my experience as a Schweitzer Fellow has been the mixed reactions I get when I talk about what I’m doing, especially when I use the term “code-switching,” she explains. “Some people have no idea what I’m talking about. It either starts an extensive discussion or ends the conversation. Some disagree with the approach because they believe that AAE should be extinguished completely. Others want to know how they can help, or if I can visit their students in other programs. I was used to discussing dialect variation and code-switching with other speech-language pathologists, who bring a particular background and experience to the conversation. I had to learn how to talk about those concepts in a new way and to take advantage of the teaching moments.”