Other People's English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy
reviewed by Chonika Coleman-King - November 06, 2014
Title: Other People's English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy
Author(s): Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y'Shanda Young-Rivera, & Kim Brian Lovejoy
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755559, Pages: 192, Year: 2013
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Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, YShanda Young Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy, the authors of Other Peoples English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy, provide a rich and engaging description of the complexities and politics around language use, particularly the use of undervalued languages. Undervalued languages are described as languages and dialects that have little currency in schools and professional spaces, not because they are inherently deficient, but because these languages are affiliated with marginalized groups. The authors argue that prevailing perceptions of some languages as superior to others is a function of power and subjectivity rather than objective truth. This work offers a critical examination of the intersections between language, culture, identity, and power, and challenges the notion that some languages are more valuable, useful, and complex than othersan assessment that is both socially constructed and inaccurate. In addressing this tension, Barrett writes:
There is nothing inherently right or wrong about any linguistic form. Rather, ideas about right or wrong are forms of social prejudice in which forms of language associated with marginalized speakers are typically wrong while the linguistic practices of social elites go unquestioned (p. 20).
The authors argue that code-meshingthe process of mixing multiple standard and undervalued languages when speaking or writingis a healthier option for speakers of undervalued languages than the much heralded method of code-switching. Unlike code-switching, which reinforces segregation and marginalization of undervalued languages, code-meshing validates the values, identities, and experiences of speakers providing a more extensive range of expression.
This book appeals to both academics and practitioners as it offers critical theoretical insights layered with descriptions of practical application. The layout further facilitates this use with text boxes strategically placed which offer Teaching Tip[s] and ask the reader What are your thoughts? with regard to controversial questions that emerge around the topic of code-meshing. The book is organized into four sections, each written by one of the four co-authors. The remainder of this review gives an overview of each of these sections.
In Part One of the book, Barrett deconstructs social prejudices used to stigmatize the languages of marginalized groups. Using detailed examples, Barrett illustrates how rules associated with the languages of marginalized groups mirror rules of other mainstream languages demonstrating the role of social bias in shaping our perspectives on language. Barrett critiques the US predilection toward monolingualism, citing examples of how multilingualism is valued in other cultures and serves not only as function of identity, but as a direct reflection of moral values.
In Part Two, Vershawn Ashanti Young takes an in-depth look at code-meshing and code-switching. Young provides much needed clarification on linguistic terms like code-switching that have been coopted and misused in previous scholarly works. Young goes further to critique code-switching as a mere acceptance of racism, highlighting its focus on segregating language use. It is argued that code-switching places an undue burden on users of undervalued languages who are encouraged to master Standard English although Whites are given the latitude to use their language across contexts and at the exclusion of others languages. Code-meshing is offered up as an alternative to code-switching that expands the use of Standard English and creates space for using multiple dialects in formal and informal spaces thereby equalizing power structures. Furthermore, Young cites examples of code-meshing by people in positions of power and in seminal literary works arguing that effective 21st Century communication requires code-meshing. According to Young, code-meshing maximizes effective communication, making the focus on excellent communication rather than how well one adheres to prescribed grammar rules in one dialect (p. 81).
In Part Three, YShonda Young-Rivera, a former English teacher, shares examples of how teachers can help students understand language politics that lead to shame and embarrassment for speakers of undervalued Englishes. This work highlights how teachers silence students and restrict their ability to fully participate in the learning process by discouraging the use of undervalued Englishes in formal academic spaces. Young-Rivera goes on to describe her use of code-meshing in literacy instruction with a class of fourth and fifth graders and a class of eighth graders. She gives practical insight into planning such lessons, highlights challenges she faced and how she worked through those issues, and even provides online access to her lesson plans. Young-Rivera admits that her work only marks the beginning of examining the use of code-meshing in the classroom and beckons readers to consider how code-meshing can be better integrated into the general K-12 curriculum.
In Part Four, entitled Code-Meshing and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for College Writing Instruction, Kim Brian Lovejoy shared his experience teaching a college level English course in which he incorporated literature about code-meshing, but also encouraged code-meshing in formal written assignments. He stated, "I was less concerned with students' ability to write Standard English than I was with their ability to...use "the power of language," to compose as writers and thinkers" (p. 124). In this section of the book, Lovejoy provides numerous examples of experimentation with code-meshing at the college level. In some instances students were asked to use their own metaphors and languages to describe how they experience writing, simultaneously engaging in code-meshing and meta-analysis of their experience using code-meshing in their writing. Lovejoy uses excerpts from students' writing as well as fiction and non-fiction work of published authors to capture the effectiveness and eloquence of code-meshing. He shares how he encourages students to make conscious, purposeful language choices when code-meshing, which requires that students know the rules of standard and undervalued Englishes. Students were also given the agency to consider their audience and make the choices they deemed most appropriate as composers and therefore owners of their written text.
This book revives the dialogue on the use of African American English in the classroom, but goes a step further to critique widely held assumptions about the appropriateness and benefits of code-switching. The authors present a cogent and compelling argument regarding how language use is continuing to evolve with increased communication across the globe, causing us to engage multiple Englishes. The authors take a firm position on the need for English language speakers to be able to engage a broad range of Englishes if they endeavor to be inclusive and effective communicators, writers, and educators. Schultz and Coleman-King (2012), document the use of multiple modalities and community storytelling as a means of allowing marginalized students to bring a passionate attitude to their composing practices in school. It is this very passion that these authors and advocates of code-meshing wish to invokeallowing students to privilege their identities, languages, and voices to create more effective, inclusive, and passionate linguistic expression.
Schultz, K., & Coleman-King, C. (2012). Becoming visible: Shifting teacher practice to actively engage new immigrant students in urban classrooms. The Urban Review, 44(4), 487509.