Code-Switching: Teaching My Child English Before Patois

two ladies speaking and code-switching

My daughter is five years old and is prone to code-switching between English and Patois in an instant. She does it like a boss, and I cannot be prouder. As a parent whose child was born and raised in Jamaica, I often hear comments like ‘She sounds like a foreigner’ when she speaks. It’s usually a topic of conversation, but I thought I would share the reason behind this intentional piece of parenting my husband and I took with our child. I know it’s true that she does sound more North American when she speaks, but what often gets left out of those brief conversations is how intentional it was, not the North American part, but the Standard English part. To some, it may seem like cultural rejection. It’s not.

Hear me out.

Obviously, this is not a decision most people care to make. I did, for one very compelling reason. Before we talk about that, if you don’t know what code-switching is, here’s some insight.

What is Code-Switching?

Code-switching in terms of linguistics means switching in and out of two or more languages. It’s something prevalent with multilingual people and culturally diverse and aware people. There are many different contexts, but we’ll talk about it being a feature and bi-product of being West-Indian for this blog post. Most West-Indian countries sport a similar but native dialect to their country. Jamaican Patois is among the world’s most popular. For some of us, including me, code-switching is natural. I instinctively adapt to the language of my environs. In my first year in university, my eight-room dorm flat had five people from Western Jamaica. Within months, far too many people thought I, too, ailed from the West. I did not, but they spoke Patois a certain way, and since we all lived in close proximity, so did I.

ladies talking and code-switching
Image by Odean Samuels

I grew up as a more proficient child in English than Math. As an adult, I realized that much of my affinity for language subjects and bolstering my vocabulary then stemmed from my love of reading. Additionally, I was always nose-deep in some novel with my dictionary close behind for words I did not know. I would then incorporate new words into my sentences until I was confident in their use and meaning from memory. Many of my classmates were not so lucky and struggled.

Patois vs Engish Cultural Divide

The reason for it was simple. To understand, here is some cultural perspective. You’ll often hear that Patois is broken-English. It is not. More accurately, it is a conglomerate of influences from English, multiple African languages and even some Spanish. And it is the first language Jamaican children are exposed to, from the day they are born till the day they learn to speak. Nothing is wrong with that, except that right around then when they are still finding language, they are thrust into the structure of a school system that expects these babies to speak, read and write in Standard English suddenly. A language that, despite being the official language of Jamaica, they do not hear often enough to replicate accurately. The entire school curriculum in Jamaica is in British English.

Scholars argue that Patois should be our official language. Regardless, as of the writing of this post, that is not the reality.

It gets worse; people who make an effort to ‘speak properly’ are culturally accused of twanging or being too ‘speaky-spokey.’ Even now, as an educated adult, I am accused mockingly of adopting an accent whenever I speak standard English. Consequently, many people refrain from speaking standard English until absolutely necessary. In the face of these challenges, many children struggle with English for far too long.

women sitting at a window talking and code-switching
Image by Odean Samuels

Why I Taught My Child English First, Patois Second

I realized that children who learned Patois first and English second often struggle considerably with English through observation. As a child born in Jamaica with two purely-bred Jamaicans born in rural Jamaica, my child’s adoption of her native tongue was a given. There was no way to escape it. Family members would speak it to her, and integration into the school system was also a given. Incidentally, when my daughter first started to speak Patois actively and test it with the vibrancy it requires, she was abroad in the United States. Our cousin born in America spoke Patois to keep up with the Jamaican side. As a three-year-old who spoke English, she quickly found that the adults found it extensively funny when she echoed Patois phrases. So naturally, she continued. Months later, my four-year-old was actively code-switching.

3 Benefits of Code-switching

1. Good grasp of grammar

The one thing all English speakers can probably agree on is that the rules of English are not easy to learn. Just today, I had the pleasure of explaining to my enthusiastic speller and new reader why and how ‘f’ and ‘ph’ sounds are the same. Her confused little face might be funny, but as a parent trying to explain the difference to a child and you can only say you don’t know ‘why’? Well, you see my point. There are see things though, that she has a handle on that I do not have to explain. For example, she has got a good handle on how to use tenses correctly for the most part.

2. Other English speakers understand better

This one may not appeal to everyone, but when I worked for an American company some years ago, I quickly learned that it was far better for my mental health to communicate with North Americans if I simply adopted their accent. English aside, sometimes, it just takes far longer to translate than I care to bear. 

3. Coverse openly among fellow native speakers

There is a particular level of comfort when speaking with people who understand your native tongue. It feels relaxing and freeing. For example, in my course, three Jamaicans in my classes. We have where English is often fleeting, for two f us; but since the third has Jamaican parents, she is fully equipped to respond to every and anything said in Patois. That kind of camaraderie is appreciated in a foreign environment.

There are many other reasons code-switching is beneficial, but these are just a few personal ones I identify with daily.

How comfortable are you code-switiching? Do you have another persepective on it? Share in the comments.

Xo, Shandean

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Shandean Reid

A heavily caffeinated, quintessential millennial wife and mom doing modern family life. I’m a communications professional following a five-year stint as a SAHM, switching roles with hubby, a physician and now WFHD. I also read and write books for fun! Stick around if I'm your kind of person!



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