Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Code-Switching on Staten Island

Sometimes they just hang up on her.

When Princess Gaye, a 16-year-old Liberian refugee, goes job hunting over the phone prospective employers sometimes simply hang up the phone after hearing her thick Liberian accent.

It happens so often that Princess has learned to mask her native dialect, almost comically.

She overcompensates by using valley girl-esque mallrat speech, peppered with the words such as "like" and "ya'know."

Apparently this practice, or variations of it, is a common action known as code-switching.

"Code-switching is not a new phenomenon," said Bonnie Urciuoli, Professor of Anthropology at Hamilton College. "It appears to have always have been a normal phenomenon in immigrant language communities."

But how does code-switching (the process of using multiple languages or mixing languages when speaking) apply to a place like New York City, where ethnicities and accents run the gamut in one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet.

Even in Staten Island, the Park Hill neighborhood is home to a Liberian diaspora that number around six to eight thousand, according to local organizers.

The refugees escaped the war torn country in the '90s and have settled in the public housing projects of Park Hill and Stapleton.

The speak English, but the dialect is incomprehensible to native New Yorkers.

And still, neighboring communities of Staten Island have seen an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants as well.

The area of Port Richmond has 15,000 Mexican immigrants, according to a 2008 study by the New York City Department of Health.

These families have made a neighborhoods like Port Richmond vibrant Spanish speaking communities.

But what happens when these languages and accents collide in places like the classroom?

"It's very difficult," said Sara Signorelli, an art teacher at P.S. 16 in the St. George area of Staten Island.

"The Mexican kids speak little English. The Liberians speak English but sometimes I can't understand them," she said.

Signorelli, and other teachers, tell their students to use an "inside voice" or a "classroom voice" in an attempt to foster a common speech in the classroom starting from kindergarten.

Professor Urciuoli said that young children are most adept at code-switching.

"In most switching situations, those who switch most fluently are those who grow up doing it," Urciuoli said. "Anyone of any age may be a code-switcher, though since it is most fluently learned from childhood."

Princess was still a child when she came to Staten Island, along with her cousin Amanda Gaye, in 2002 to live with her grandmother.

Princess said that some of the elder Liberian refugees have not learned how to code-switch.

"She can't talk on the phone," Princess said about her grandmother. "So she gives us the phone and tells us what to say."

Princess' cousin, Amanda is also adept at code switching. Amanda is six months pregnant and is wary of the language difficulties that may face her child.

"I don't want my baby to stay with my grandmother," Amanda said. "I don't want her to speak like I do."

No comments:

Post a Comment