Recommendations to Public Speaking Instructors for the Negotiation of Code-Switching Practices among Black English-Speaking African American Students

Article excerpt

This article offers six recommendations that instructors can employ to encourage effective classroom code-switching practices among Black English-speaking students in the basic communication course: (a) reconsider attitudes, (b) communicate expectations, (c) demonstrate model language behavior, (d) affirm students' language, (e) create culturally reflective assignments, and (f) develop assessment methods.

The development of communication skills is recognized as an integral component of the across-the-curriculum initiative of many American colleges and universities. While the incorporation of a basic communication course such as the introductory class to public speaking is an important advance in curriculum development, it is often a challenge for speech instructors to broaden the speaking proficiencies of students whose language system is rooted in Black English and who display difficulties in code-switching practices in academic settings. Black English speakers, who develop an understanding of the social complexities associated with the ability to code-switch, become astute in recognizing context cues and managing bi-dialectical behavior. Consequently, the development of these skills influences academic performance as well as communication in other arenas. This article synthesizes data from various researchers on both Black English and dialect shifting, and then it moves beyond the theoretical aspects of framing the difficulties associated with Black English-speaking students and suggests practical methods for instructors to employ in an effort to encourage effective code-switching practices in the classroom.


Code-switching is defined as "the use of two or more linguistic varieties in the same conversation or interaction" (Myers-Scotton & Ury, 1977, p. 7). It can involve the alternation between two different languages, two tonal registers, or a dialectical shift within the same language, such as Standard English and Black English (Flowers, 2000).

Code-switching is not random or meaningless. It has a role, a function, facets and characteristics. It is a linguistic tool and a sign of the participants' awareness of alternative communicative conventions. Historically, Black English has been deemed inferior, one of the "language patterns which deviate from Mainstream American English" (Toliver-Weddington, 1973, p. 108). Black English and speakers of Black English have experienced the brunt of this rejection. In response, African Americans, for the most part, engage in the almost "unconscious and reflexive" (Toliver-Weddington, 1973, p. 108) practice of code-switching as a means of adapting to or negotiating various communication contexts. Used to convey social information and for stylistic purposes, code-switching allows African Americans "to identify what language is acceptable in different situations and modify their speech to the appropriate style" (Hecht, Collier, & Ribeau, 1993, p. 89).

Even though the use of Black English for individuals develops naturally as a part of having been reared in African American cultural environments, African Americans develop the ability to code-switch in order to manage in a society in which they are a racial minority.

In a country where the standard language (so defined because the dominant group speaks it) is spoken by those in power, another language or dialect spoken by those not in power will be ranked lower than that standard within the dominant culture context. Although the dominant group in the United States does not have to learn non-standard English, most members of the subordinate groups are obliged to leam the standard dominant language to get along in school, at work, or in any mixed group settings. (Flowers, 2000, p. 2)

Black English (often used interchangeably with Ebonics) is defined as "a set of communication patterns and practices resulting from Africans' appropriation and transformation of a foreign tongue during the African holocaust" (Smitherman, 2000, p. …


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