'Code-Switching' in Montgomery

February 19, 1991

Do black children need special instruction in "code-switching," the practice of shifting from one language BTC style to another depending on the circumstances? A group of black speech pathologists in the Montgomery County school system believes so and has put together an after-school program to help black fifth-graders glide easily between "black English" and the more formal, standardized English spoken in the classroom and workplace.

The project, dubbed the Code-Switching Club, has re-ignited a smoldering debate over black English and insulted some black parents who chafe at the assumption that all and only black children need such help. One mother correctly pointed out that improper English, poor grammar and slang aren't unique to black children.

It is unfortunate that the clumsy presentation by Burnt Mills Elementary School administrators has overshadowed a program that makes sense and demonstrates how individual schools can craft creative responses to specific needs. The club uses drama, music and art to familiarize children with the differences between speech styles and the appropriateness of each in various settings.

Throughout the semester, youngsters will meet physicians, scientists, educators and business people who will talk about the importance of being able to communicate effectively. At the same time, the program rightly avoids making value judgments on informal speech patterns. The idea is to drive home the importance of fluency in what one linguist calls the "cash language" of the workplace, public forum and classroom.

Some Burnt Mills parents question the need to formalize code-switching, a process many blacks have learned almost instinctively. Others wonder why the program is directed exclusively at blacks.

Both are good questions. On the first, it is true that many blacks have learned to move from vernacular to formal English; others, however, have not. Some attribute this to an unwillingness on the part of teachers to appear racist by stressing standard English. Others point to peer pressure steering black children away from speech patterns associated with "acting white."

Whatever the reason, standard English curriculums simply aren't doing the job. A program that helps youngsters master the technique of moving easily between speech patterns -- without putting down black vernacular -- is not only useful but vital to young school children. This brings us to the second question of why target only black children. White, Asian, Hispanic and other youngsters could benefit from such programs. Targeting a specific group not only excludes other youngsters out of a potentially useful exercise, but reinforces the kind of erroneous, hurtful notions that schools should be trying to dispel.

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