by Izzy Adler
The English Language has hundreds of dialects and accents which span across the entire world and yet, despite the differences, the idea that a Standard English exists remains prevalent. Standard English continues to be the most widely respected and accepted form of communication in schooling when compared to other dialects such as AAVE. The debate as to whether Standard English should be the primary dialect used when speaking and writing in an academic setting is one which has loud voices on both sides; professional linguists, professors of English and Writing, as well as specific individuals to whom the debate feels incredibly personal continue to struggle in finding a happy medium or ‘correct’ answer to the question of if there is a wrong way to speak or write in English. Jamilla Lyiscott’s TedTalk 3 ways to Speak English represents the struggles, points, and implications of both Code-Switching and Code-Meshing.
Language has intrinsic ties to a person’s identity for the simple reason that it is how humans find their place in a group and feel connected to said, group. The desire to want to belong and to convey oneself is one that all people can understand. The difficulty arises when a person wants to step outside of their group and try to communicate and belong in a new setting. A notable example of this struggle can be found when black students who typically speak and/or write in AAVE are expected to write and speak in Standard English and obey its dialectical rules when in academic settings. These students are taught, either outrightly or subliminally, that their normal way of communicating is incorrect and should be forgotten either entirely or at the least while they are in school. The act of entirely adapting one’s speech or writing to fit the situation that a person finds themself in is called Code-Switching. However, there is a more recently developed term called ‘Code-Meshing’ which describes selecting terms and phrases to use in sentences based on which will convey the most clear and effective communication, regardless of dialect. This term allows for far more linguistic flexibility for those that do not use Standard English as their primary dialect. Code-Meshing allows those that speak non-Standard English to be more authentically meanwhile Code-Switching censors the message the speaker/writer is attempting to convey. Jamilla Lyiscott states in her Ted Talk 3 Ways to Speak English that she has “decided to treat all three of [her] languages as equal because [she’s] ‘articulate’” (Lyiscott 1:12). In Lyiscott’s verbal demonstration of her command over the dialects which she speaks, she also demonstrates the mental acrobatics which are needed in order to flip between said dialects. She states that she has been told she is ‘articulate’ for her ability to recognize her audience and adjust. She proclaims, “I speak three tongues. One for each home, school, and friend” (Lyiscott 2:29). Each one of her ‘tongues’ serves a purpose and helps her to connect to others.
The actual Ted Talk by Lyiscott is an example of Code-meshing, while the topic of the Talk is one Code-Switching. Lyiscott’s speech shows how she can mix and move through her different dialects all within the piece without it becoming incomprehensible. In her Talk Lyiscott says “Sometimes I fight back two tongues while I use the other one in the classroom. And when I mistakenly mix them up, I feel crazy- like I’m cooking in the bathroom” (2:39). This is a description of Switching and demonstrates how she perceives her other two dialects to be unfit for an academic setting because they are not Standard English. Stanley Fish argues that “You’re not going to be able to change the world if you are not equipped with the tools that speak to its present condition. You don’t strike a blow against a power structure by making yourself vulnerable to its prejudice.” To Fish, it is necessary to speak and write in Standard English to better advocate for oneself and understand as well as participate in the current world. Because of Fish’s ideas regarding the imperativeness of communicating in Standard English and leaving other dialects at home or with friends, he is advocating for Code-switching and thus would likely commend Lyiscott’s ability to conform to Standard ideals of academic communication.
However, as stated before, not all agree with the necessity of Code-Switching. Melissa Dennihy an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York whose research in multi-ethnic literature has been published many times argues, “Although some consider it an acceptable or even progressive practice, code-switching is a discriminatory language policy. It ranks Standardized English as more valuable than other language varieties…” Dennihy makes the point that asking students to Code-switch instills in them the idea that their natural way of speaking is something that should be hidden away or be ashamed of. She goes on to say, “We do not tell students to accept racial or ethnic discrimination as “just how it is,” so why would we give such a response with regard to linguistic discrimination? Blaming the working world is not a fair answer, either” (Dennihy). This particular argument is in direct contrast to Fish’s claim that people must speak and write in the way those in power do in order to ‘strike a blow against a power structure’. However, compared to Lyicott’s argument, it is far more nuanced. Lyiscott does not feel shame about the fact that she speaks two other dialects apart from Standard English. She treats her three ‘three tongues as equal’. Lyiscott has learned to be a chameleon and adapt her tongue to the situation. However, she does admit to struggling to adapt; sometimes she worries she might “[cook] in the bathroom” (2:45). There are times when Lyiscott does not switch and her dialect is made to feel out of place. This introduces the idea of Code-Meshing, of weaving a person’s multiple dialects together to convey a message most authentically.
Vershawn Ashanti Young describes Code-Meshing as “blend[ing] dialects, international languages, local idioms, chat-room lingo, and the rhetorical styles of various ethnic and cultural groups in both formal and informal speech acts” (114). Young advocates for the weaving of dialects in all settings and the retirement of the idea that there is only one dialect which should be used in schools. Young’s argument is that writing, and speech should be conducted for the purpose of successful communication of emotion or ideas and should not be regimented with rules which further promote division among those attempting to connect. Young asks, “so, what happen when peeps dont meet the dominant language rules? Well, some folks can get away with not meeting those rules while others get punished, sometimes severely, for not doing so” (112). Young demonstrates his control and understanding of the message he is writing about through his own use of Code-messing in the article. Lyiscott’s own speech similarly depicted the act of Code-meshing. Both Young and Lyiscott’s pieces gained an immense amount of honesty and authenticity through the mixing of the writers’ multidialectal word and phrase choices.
Humans have a natural ability to speak and make sound. Meanwhile, writing skills are unnaturally occurring. Despite these differences in the accessibility of the two forms of communication, both are judged with the same harsh and regimented ideals of what is correct and what is acceptable. Humans speak to convey their thoughts and identity; by restricting the words and parts of a person that they are allowed to share, that person is effectively silenced. It is not necessary to entirely forgo the rules of Standard English and remove its place in academic spheres. But rather, schools need to finally start adapting themselves and allow students to show themselves in their writing. Code-meshing offers the opportunity for multidialectal students to use their own words to share their thoughts. As Jamilla Lyiscott said: “This is not a promotion of ignorance. This is a linguistic celebration.” So long as the divergences from Standard English do not impede the reader’s understanding of the writer’s argument or points the piece should be allowed to remain as the writer wrote it. If a word or phrasing choice hinders the clarity of the argument, a discussion should be held between the writer and the teacher. Writing and speaking should be done in the voice of those who wish to be heard.
Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 12, Issue 1, 2010. Pp. 110- 118.
Fish, Stanley. “What Should Colleges Teach?” New York Times, 2009.
Dennihy, Melissa. “Beyond English: Linguistic Diversity in the College English Classroom.” MELUS, Volume 42, Number 4, Winter 2017. Oxford University Press.
Lyiscott, Jamilla. “3 ways to speak English.” TED, June 2014.