Thursday, August 08, 2013

Social Class Code-Switching or Trans-Cultural Communication?

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Indiana State University

In linguistics the concept of code-switching is a standard way to discuss how people switch between languages.  This is a binary approach to being bilingual, first one language, and then the other.  This idea of code switching has also been used to describe how individuals switch behaviors in different cultural contexts.  When social class is thought of as culture, or rather a collection of subcultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige, then code switching happens when an individual competent in two sets of cultural knowledge and skills switches between the two.  Code switching implies a complete change, as in language, rather than a modification.  Since social class subcultures are related then the switching is not so much a binary switch but an adjustment.  Nevertheless, new rules, behaviors, knowledge, and skills apply in a different cultural setting.

Recently (cite) the concept of trans-language has been put forward to describe a conversation between two people who both have access to the same two languages – they don’t switch the code but use to two whole languages in the conversation, each complete with their own meaning and subtlety.  This provides a more interesting and richer conversation that uses both languages.

As code switching was applied to cross cultural and cross social class culture / subculture communication, trans-language can be applied to culture as trans-cultural.  As people develop multiple languages they get better skills at trans-language in conversation.  As people develop competency in multiple cultures / subcultures / social class groups, they get better at the skill of trans-culture.  They have access to more ways to communicate and inter-relate with others who share the multiple languages, or cultures, in which they are competent.

So what?

College is an interesting developmental time.  Because of the number of diversities on campus many students have an opportunity to become trans-cultural, but not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity.  Using social class identity as an example will illustrate my point.  The first generation, low income, working class, poverty class, lower-middle class student comes to campus and is in constant daily contact with the majority social college students, who come from families where at least one parent has a college degree.

As a quick aside, roughly 25% of all first year students in college nationally are first generation, so 75% are not.  Roughly 30% of US adults over 25 have a college degree.  That means that around 75% of US college students come from around 30% of US families.  The reality is that most college students are from the upper-middle to upper class in the US.  There are campuses that are notable exceptions, having significantly more, typically state colleges with more open admissions requirements, or significantly fewer, typically highly selective campuses, first generation students.

Class consciousness is a way of life for students from the US underclass.  Class consciousness begins with awareness, and underclass students are immediately aware of their status when they come to campus.  Students from the underclass develop class competence in the majority upper-middle and upper class culture and sub-cultures.  This multiple cultural competence allows them to build trans-cultural skills in order to work with and across social class boundaries.

Class unconsciousness is a way of life for students from the US majority class.  They live in a social class bubble and much of the college experiences, staff, faculty, peers, and structures work to accommodate majority class students’ needs and to reinforce their social class norms.  These majority class students do not build trans-cultural skills because they do not seek to gain competence in another culture.

In the work force who will be more valuable; the student with trans-social class culture skills or the student unable to work with people from different social class cultures?

We know from research that students from the underclass graduate at a lower rate than student from the overclass.  Students from the underclass are at risk of graduation.  Students from the overclass are at risk in the work force.  Students from the overclass have economic, social, and cultural capital.  Because of their place in the majority on campus overclass students don’t experience diversity the same way as underclass students, and consequently have fewer learning opportunities.  This is the case for all majority and minority students.

Which is worse risk?  For me educational attainment is the foundation of economic, social, and life success.  But, how will we achieve an equitable world when members of the majority class are unaware of the inequities they perpetuate?