Code Switching or W(hy)TF Should I Speak Proper English?

I say “no worry” A LOT.

Speak proper English.

I heard this a lot as a kid. So much so it became something to live up to. I worked on it, adopting the clipped proper English spoken by some of my relatives (influenced by the British-imports in my family no doubt) and pushing down the Hawaiian, pidgin, Portuguese and everything else accents I grew up with.

Pidgin does have regional dialects, influences from island to island. I grew up on O’ahu but most of my family is from the Big Island… country side so I heard that a lot. I can slide into a deep pidgin. I know that. I also tend to drift into a casual pidgin when speaking with other locals or friends from Hawai’i. It’s not a habit. It’s more like a comfort food… like a mental loco moco. Easing back into that lingual shift.

As I got older, I realized I was in the same boat as many First Generations Americans (technically I’m First Gen because Hawai’i became a state only a few years before I was born.) We FGAs are told in order to be truly American… to REALLY succeed… we must sound for all intents and purposes, Upper Class White.

Common thing. Many regional and cultural accents are discarded / repressed in favour of this proper English. We’re told we’re stringing the words together wrong, speaking “trash” and in the words of Mrs. Brennan, my sixth grade teacher from Minnesota; “You sound like a grunting monkey. Speak English.”

I was speaking pidgin to someone at the time, outside of class and certainly not to her.

I hate that regional dialects / vernaculars are being suppressed and ridiculed. It angers me when someone says; Oh that person talks like they’re from the ghetto / they sound stupid like they don’t know how to speak. You know what? They’re speaking from where they are from. There should be no shame in that. And yet, here we are. Mocking how someone speaks.

But I understand. I hate that I do. I hate that we still have to smooth over how we speak in order to “pass” our English off as proper.

From Thought Co.

I do code-switch a lot. I have also been shamed for doing so. Even by some of my closest friends (usually when visiting an Asian restaurant) and I’ve sat back and listened to their words in my head, trying to understand where that comes from… why the shaming… why the discomfort or mockery of the “Asian half-English / pidgin” I’ll fall into when speaking to people I feel comfortable conversing using it.

There’s a struggle for me in understanding why. Is it like maybe speaking in a foreign language they don’t understand? Is it because they have no other base language? Or do they not understand that pidgin really IS my base language and my words are not strung together like English is. That it’s comfortable for me to slide into pidgin and I should never be made to feel ashamed for using it.

Because I will not be shamed for refusing to be erased.

See that’s what I feel when I hear someone say; Speak Proper English. Like I’m being shamed for interacting in a way that’s beneath them. Beneath their notice. I get all the perks you get for speaking English in the way it was constructed. I do. I also feel white-washed at times and tired of fighting to keep that English foremost and front-facing in my mind. Sometimes I just want to let go of the pronouns and syntax and clack-clack-clack of its rhythm and go back to the bubble-pop of my native sounds.

I worry we’re losing our muchness of who we are. Of where we came from. Of the us-ness we have right in our family because it’s frowned upon to speak anything other than “proper English” in order to pass in America as… a citizen. As if our skin colour or our facial features weren’t enough to be ashamed of, our language will mark us as foreign, as undesirable. Erase our names, erase our accents, erase our language… that’s what our parents and grandparents taught us.

I say we should never do that and yeah, I think if someone says something to me again about code-switching — even if it is someone I love dearly — I will gently correct them. Hopefully gently. English isn’t my first language and I’m not going to be made to feel less because I go back to my origins in order to speak to someone. I do lose English periodically. There are times when I am so tired I can’t even string together the words I need much less remember stuff like modifiers. It happens. I’ll even say that. Lost my English. Sorry. And it’s more of a… sorry if you didn’t understand me but not sorry that I’m not speaking it.

And if you have a regional accent, I would love to hear it more. I think it’s like verbal spice. We flavour our language with those tones and richness of spaces where we’re from. We don’t celebrate that enough. I want to celebrate hearing those differences.

Much rambling. More wording to do. Sleep good, okay?

10 thoughts on “Code Switching or W(hy)TF Should I Speak Proper English?

  1. steelergrrl43

    When I was kid my Southern accent was so bad in Ohio they put me in speech therapy. I lost most of my accent, and sometimes I mourn that. I can spend some time at home in NC and it will come back but I realized once I get back to my home I start instantly losing it. I have a weird mashup accent from having speech therapy and being Southern. I never realized it until a friend mentioned it to me after angling visit home and apparently I came home sounding like a redneck. I was offended because in my eyes redneck are mostly racist trash and my family is definitely not. Just because I’m Southern doesn’t mean I’m a redneck or some rebel flag loving racist. I’m a proud southern girl who was born and raised there.

    1. Do NOT be ashamed of your Southern accent. And hell, I know plenty of “rednecks” who are fine, wonderful people and don’t let the impressions others make slow your roll! Hell, look at Trae Crowder *grins* Wear that accent with pride and be the best person you are. * hugs *

  2. Donna

    I sometimes can’t understand heavy accents, or if I haven’t heard the accent before, but that is me not you, I just ask the speaker to say it one more time but slower,. I can’t understand why anyone would tell someone to speak proper English, unless your from an prep school 90% of the world does not speak proper English. I am sorry people are so rude.

    1. Totally valid to ask someone to slow down. I do that with English speakers too *grins* Because the words are strung so tightly together at times. Oh we hear “speak proper english” all the time 😀

  3. Niyx

    I was born and raised in the Southeast US, and people never believe me when I tell them that because I have never had an accent. (No one in my family has even though we’re generations in the area.) I get a lot of “where are you from?” questions at my job at a bed and breakfast. I’ve also had people guessing everywhere in the English speaking world. I definitely have some southern dialectical phrases, but apparently those aren’t as prominent as my lack of accent. (Y’all is as natural as breathing. “Cold as a frog’s ass.” “Cold as a witch’s titty.” “If it’d been a snake it would have bit me.” etc)

    I think when my brother and I first began pre-k daycare, we came back copying a teacher’s heavy southern accent, and were told to not do that. I can mimic accents I hear fairly easily, but yeah… 3 generations (I never knew my great grandparents) without a significant accent.

  4. Adrianna

    Welcome to the wonderful world of linguistics! I teach anthropology, but I can’t teach linguistics because I can’t make the sounds, sadly I am mono-linguistic.

    1. Anthro was one of my majors. I did a dual with it and Psych. Loved it but didn’t want the Ivory Tower. Specialized in Pacific Rim.

  5. Aethena Drake

    I grew up in the mid-west. Supposedly, we don’t have an accent. We were always encouraged to use ‘proper English’ in school and at home. I didn’t realize until I left my home state that I do have multiple accents. I subconsciously switch depending on who I am speaking with. Eastern South Dakota has a slight accent influenced by Scandinavian languages and farming vernacular. Western South Dakota has a ‘cowboy’ accent which I probably use the most. I really struggle to pronounce the ‘ing’ sound. Then there were my Southern cousins…

    I am not embarrassed by my accents anymore, but I do get frustrated when people point out an accent that is actually a speech impairment. Some of us have sinus problems and dental work that make certain sounds challenging. Sigh. Doesn’t happen often anymore though. Thankfully.

    1. I think everyone has an accent. Especially if you’re heard from someone who doesn’t live where you live 😀 And they’re lovely things 😀

  6. People are just going to be stupid about a lot of things. There’s nothing wrong with accents. Or even using slang as long as you’re communicating what you want. And for all that “speak proper English”–almost no one DOES!

    Yes, it’s usually code for “you aren’t one of us–get lost!”

    I’m an older third gen Chinese-American… I speak as properly as you might imagine because–born and raised in US, duh! But they see a Chinese woman and it doesn’t matter how or what I speak–even these days (and it used to be MUCH worse).

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