Why Should I Change the Way I Talk?

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Why Should I Change the Way I Talk?

EDITOR’S NOTE:&nbspThis story was developed in the writing program at Youth Communication, a nonprofit publisher of true stories that give readers insight into the issues that matter most to young people. Readers can help support the future of teen writers with a tax-deductible donation to Youth Communication.

The first time I realized I was code-switching, I was making an appointment over the phone while sitting on the couch with my 14-year-old niece. My voice became higher and more gentle, and I purposely avoided saying certain words that would emphasize my accent.

When I got off the phone, she asked, “Why were you talking like that?” I didn’t immediately answer, so my mother, who’d been listening from the kitchen, answered instead. “She’s trying to sound professional.” I felt a mix of emotions; pride in myself for being able to sound professional, but also embarrassment that my way of speaking changed so drastically that it was noticeable.

NPR defines “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations” as code-switching. It can include changing languages, dialects, accents, and tones of voice.  Although we’ve never discussed it in my family, I have adopted this more conventional and measured way of talking that I call “my appointment voice.” I have observed my older sisters doing it when they are taking a work call or making a doctor’s appointment, because our accent is embarrassing at times and is not considered professional-sounding or intelligent. 

This idea that my accent is a joke is another reason I code-switch. This summer, I was at a friend’s party and she asked me in front of some other friends that I didn’t know, “Can you talk like your dad?” I knew she meant my dad’s stereotypical Italian accent that most people find amusing. “Yeah, but mainly I just do that when I’m talking to him,” I said. “Oh my God, I have to hear it,” she said. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was on stage expected to perform a magic trick. But this wasn’t a magic trick; it was the way my dad talks. I felt like I would be making fun of my dad’s accent, which was occasionally my own. It felt disrespectful. Luckily another friend noticed my discomfort and changed the subject.

I also use words that make me sound more intellectual and that I wouldn’t use in my day-to-day life. In fact, I use it so much that only some of my closest friends have heard what I refer to as my “home accent,” which is mixed with Spanish and Italian words. I use phrases like bendito (which could be used in many different contexts but overall means blessed) and Ay Dios mío (oh Lord). When I’m home or with close friends, I don’t feel like I’m being judged.

Code-switching is more than changing some words that you use and slightly altering your accent. I am abandoning a piece of my identity. People’s accents and dialects often represent where they are from, and I feel like a part of me is trapped when I code-switch.

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