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Code-Switching and Register

8b616ba0f2f7d501177d54a231c9d0dfWhen I began my career as an English teacher(2004), my understanding was that a key part of my job was to help students (read:drag kicking and screaming) to learn to write more formally.  They often began writing as they spoke with their peers.  That is with slang, elliptical speech, and in fragments.  Clearly such language would be unacceptable when they all went off to college.

Move things forward ten years to 2014.  Now I’m working on teaching students how and when to code-switch.

Linguistically, “code switching” is switching between varieties of a single language and/or switching between two or more languages.  A student who speaks almost exclusively Spanish, for example, at home and comes to school and speaks English is code switching.  I, a native English speaker with only rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, code switch between varieties of English.  The formal language I use in a graduate school essay is far different from the slang laden speech I might use with my friends.  Or to use a nerdy science fiction reference… when Greedo talks to Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina.


Han is in trouble.  He owes Jabba the Hutt money.  Lots of money.  Greedo is sent to get the money or get Han.  Han turns on the charm trying to weasel his way out of this sticky situation.

Code switching an important skill because knowing when and where to use each variety of a language is vitally important.  Mixing them up can be a recipe for either simple embarrassment or career disaster.

So How Am I Going To Teach Code Switching?

I have been looking for a way to incorporate blogging and the associated skills/knowledge (tagging, hyperlinks, embedding, copyright laws and fair use, etc.) into my classes.  I think asking the students to blog with varied levels of formality(in the form of different audiences) might be the path.  A movie review written for a peer should look far different than a brief commentary on the symbolism of space in 2001: A Space Odyssey written for a professor.  What is different?


What is “register”?

i-find-your-lack-of-proper-grammar-disturbing.jpgRegister is a linguistics term.  It is “a variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and social status of the user.”  There are on-going debates on the division between registers.  However, for me and my students knowing they exist is likely enough otherwise the various registers might be too overwhelming.  Just the “codes” and “registers” for a few of the types of writings students encounter is lengthy:

  • Formal Writing- An essay in AP English
  • Tweets
  • Facebook updates- And, yes, they are different from Tweets
  • Texting- Could be a couple here(do kids text their friends the same way they do mom?  Maybe.)
  • Journalistic- that Journalism I profile article
  • Resume
  • Job Application

When writing formal essays I implore my students to write in a way that makes them “sound smarter than they are.”  But clearly formal writing is not needed everywhere.  Given the restrictions of Twitter grammar goes out the window.  What about a post on a quasi-news site like Buzzfeed?  Length matters.  Oh, you wrote 10,000 words on the Olympics? tl;dr Too Long; Didn’t Read.  Or 1,000 words on unrest in the Middle East loaded with pop culture references for The Wall Street Journal?  Nope. Nope.  Nope.

Decoding the linguistic code of a situation before jumping into writing or speaking is vital.



Edit: Friday, August 22, 2014.  A slightly modified version of this post was posted to CTQ’s Collaboratory at the urging of Brianna Crowley.  http://www.teachingquality.org/content/code-switching-and-register

About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...


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