STUDENT VANGUARD OPINION: My Not So American English – Exploring the Inevitable Advent of Code Switching

By Praniti Gulyani 

When I came to the USA to pursue my B.A. in English and Creative Writing, I became an obvious witness to innumerable transitions. In addition to a change in location, weather and cuisine, I experienced a shift in my relationships: with people, culture, and, most importantly, with Hindi — a language that defined my cultural identity.

During my years in India, Hindi was a mere “means of communication” that doted on me like an overprotective parent, making sure that I was understood by everyone. However, when I moved out of India, this overprotective parent possibly experienced a sudden realization about how their child needs to grow up — and left my hand with almost shocking instantaneousness.

A few weeks into my first semester at UC Berkeley, I found myself listening intently for even the slightest mention of Hindi whenever I would spot Indians on the street. After all, even one “Hindi” word was enough to make me smile, and I found myself clinging onto this “overheard bit of home” with all my soul.

More often than not, this “overheard bit of home” came from students who were speaking to their parents in India. Even though I did not know any of these students personally, I would always make it a point to smile at them, as a way of expressing my gratitude.

After all, without realizing it, their vernacular words turned into little vehicles that drove me home — no matter how momentary those visits were.

However, as I explored the Indian community in my college at a deeper level, I made some pivotal realizations. To begin with, a lot of Indian students were reluctant to publicly converse in Hindi, because they believed that doing so would make them look inferior. Even while speaking in English, they would consciously discard their originality and adopt the American accent, making prominent efforts to fit in.

Even though this choice of transition shocked me, I managed to mold my feelings of unwarranted surprise into fearful intrigue, and realized that I had just experienced the aftermath of Code Switching — a societal phenomenon that I was bound to cross paths with, being an international student on foreign shores.

In a report by The World Economic Forum entitled “Code-Switching: 4 Forum Voices on what it is – and why we need to talk about it,” code switching refers to “changing speech, behavior and even appearance” that often becomes “second nature for people of color to survive and succeed in white working world.”

It has been cinematically depicted as a premise of the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You wherein the protagonist struggles to make sales in his new job as a telemarketer, until his Black colleague suggests: “Use your white voice.”

In the same report, Adwoa Bagalini, the Forum’s Diversity Lead said, “There are few Black people who don’t spend their entire lives just studying whiteness, and trying to adapt to a certain white way of being in the world and trying to understand what it means to interact with white people, to communicate with them and be accepted. The reverse rarely happens.”

Adding to this, Sarah Shakour from the Marketing and Communications Department of the Forum states, “You’re taking out your culture or your personality and adapting to the environment you might be put in. It’s a little bit like imposter syndrome.”

As per an article by Harvard Business Review entitled “Costs of Code Switching,” code switching has been looked upon as a double-edged sword because “even though it is seen as crucial for professional advancement, code-switching often comes at a great psychological cost.”

The article states, “Downplaying one’s racial group can generate hostility from in-group members, increasing the likelihood that those who code-switch will be accused of “acting white.” Moreover, “feigning commonality with coworkers reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.” 

To further explore the reasons behind code switching, Harvard Business Review conducted a survey that yielded homogenous results. On the outset, the results of the survey state how code switching was commonly found to be used as a method to combat stereotypes associated with race, and as a means of “leadership aspiration.” 

“I go out of my way to make sure I don’t appear lazy because I know the stereotypes. People talk, and if you look a certain way, you have to work twice as hard,” said a 23-year-old Black female program manager who was one of the respondents of this survey. 

Another respondent — who is a woman in her 30s and works as a senior research program coordinator, stated, “In my actions and verbal communications, I try to avoid any opportunity for someone to label me as the ‘angry black woman.’ I also carry myself in a professional manner that may seem to be a step above the somewhat casual professional environment of the office.”

Related to the psychological implications of code switching, in a report entitled “The Burden of Code Switching” published on the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) website, Myles Durkee, assistant professor of Psychology sheds light on the dangers of code-switching, and the almost direct impact that it has on the trustworthiness of an individual. 

According to Durkee, “if you attempt to code switch but are unable to do so effectively, people perceive you differently—and usually more negatively—because they realize you’re not being your real, authentic self. When people become aware that you’re changing your personality to appeal to their norms and preferences, they often feel uncomfortable by this dynamic. It comes across as pandering, which results in the exact opposite outcome you’re hoping to achieve.”

In addition to putting forth a significant empirical observation, Durkee’s statement highlights my innermost fears — for my peers, as well as for myself.  As an English Major and Creative Writing Minor, my academic pursuits tend to be comparatively non-conventional as opposed to my Indian counterparts. 

I also happen to be a very involved student, and always have something to say in class — irrespective of what we’re talking about. Ranging from colonization to the use of repetition in Dorian Gray, to different types of radio plays — my interpretations are constantly evolving, which leads to varying observations that just have to be shared with the class. 

Thus, when I raise my hand, and am called upon by the professor to contribute, I can hear my not-so-American-English echo like a pair of unsynchronized bells played with a quivering hand. In large lecture halls, the sound of my distinctive accent bounces back to me, and within my unrolled “r,” elongated “a” and unemphasized “d” — I experience the resonating reverberation of cultural difference. 

For the most part, I don’t know what to feel about this linguistic divergence. While being different hasn’t personally bothered me, I do consider code switching, only to minimize the oral variation that is particularly noticeable in a group setting. 

I want people to not have to ask me to “repeat myself” or excuse themselves and put forth a polite “pardon me” when they are not able to grasp what I have to say in one go. This makes me feel like an exotic object that needs to be gradually deciphered, and the atmosphere often seems to press against me with the weight of efforts made by my group members. 

However, what terrifies me is the realization that code switching is not a permanent alternative, and calls for continuous vigilance. As a writer, content matters to me — and if I have to constantly worry about how I’m speaking, I might get distracted from what I’m saying. 

Also, if this oral mask drops — exposing even the slightest glimpse of my original accent, I am at the risk of being looked upon as “inauthentic” and “a people pleaser” who is ready to alter her original self just to fit into the norms and preferences of a particular place. 

As I enter my junior year of college and contemplate a long-term solution with respect to code switching, I realize that I am yet to come up with one. After all, for some people, the ability to change how they speak according to the group that they are with comes forth as a means of protection against discrimination that enables career advancement. 

This is further attested by an article in Harvard Business Review, which states code switching and “downplaying membership in a stigmatized racial group helps increase perceptions of professionalism and the likelihood of being hired.”

I think that I can reach a temporary consensus with myself. Acknowledging the positive impact that code switching can have on some lives, I will retain my original accent, and own my unrolled “r” and elongated “a.”

When I hear my Indian accent ring like bells in a lecture hall, I will look upon the echo of my voice as a confident chime instead of an unusual sound that “does not fit.” I will not oppose code switching, but I will not blindly sway to its winds either. Suffice it to say, I will hold onto my originality, as long as my fingers can handle the weight. 

However, two days ago — as I got on the bus to get to the softball field for my on-campus job shift, my seemingly firmly etched opinion wavered. I remember hearing snippets of Hindi just two seconds after I sat down, as a young Indian girl conversed with her friend about her English Professor. 

The bus was filled with people — students, workers, and passengers — and for some reason, my mind numbed itself to the surrounding conversation and focused only on what she was saying. For me, her voice carried home — as I absorbed the Indian drawl of irritation, and the Hindi exclamation of joy with an open and awaiting heart.

As she hung up, I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to talk to her, and as I searched for a valid excuse to do so, I realized that I didn’t know how far the bus line would go. I wanted to go further up in the mountains, and I wanted to check if my bus would go beyond a certain stop.

I decided to ask her that — framing my question in Hindi. As I assigned a sequence to the blurry words in my head, I looked straight at her. I would begin my sentence with “kahaan” (which means where) and end at “jaati hai” (which means this bus go). 

Fueled by the opportunity to speak in Hindi to someone who was in front of me as opposed to over the phone line, I sat up straight, and opened my mouth.

Suddenly, the people around me seemed to close in with a cacophony of American English — as they spoke about their day, their love interests and plans for the evening. In contrast, my partially formed Hindi words clung to my lips like a pus-filled blister. But I don’t care about what they think. I had promised myself to cling to my originality as long as my fingers could handle it.

As I began speaking, the people around me started looking — and as their “looking” clashed with my “speaking,” my “speaking” attempted to resist but failed miserably, and before I knew it, I had already spoken, and heard my words moments after they exited my mouth. “Excuse me. Really sorry to bother you, but do you know if this bus goes to the softball field?” 

I could not help but notice how this seemingly simple inquiry had an understated “a,” an accentuated “the” and a perfectly rolled “r.”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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