By Rebecca Kemp
In class lately we’ve talked quite a bit about code-switching, whether between languages or vernaculars, and a great deal of that analysis has been greatly intertwined with racial identity. For this blog post, I wanted to explore another intersection of language wherein code-switching occurs: gender.
The following video is an ABC production posted on their website, interviewing the female author of a book called “Code Switching: How to Talk So Men Will Listen”. Audrey Nelson, the author, is a businesswoman specifically hired by Fortune 500 companies to teach how to communicate in different situations (work, home, etc). In this gem of an interview there are a large variety of ways that code-switching is used through identities of gender:
One of the initial complaints exposed within the interview is how “men just don’t listen well” and that it could be possibly because of the fact men and women are biologically wired differently. Dr. Nelson comments on this and implicates the debate of nature v. nurture (frequently discussed in diverging sexual identities) in the process of how women are much more chatty than men: in a woman’s brain, the transition from left to right hemisphere is better and a catalyst is thereby emitted, “igniting language”. An example of this active language cited by the author is how younger girls are typically more talkative than boys.
Nelson also briefly mentions how men do indeed have bigger brains (the culture of bigger is better) but also poses the question of quality vs. quantity. The crux of what the book’s argument seems to be, however, lies in the regions of the brain. As discussed, women seem to “ignite language”, a reflection of their interpersonal skills. Women tend to be more empathetic and compassionate, but that “doesn’t mean men don’t feel”. The goal of the book is to understand the differences in language between men and women, and how to bridge the linguistic gap of the female/male binary. Men, as verbal communicators, tend to be direct—women, on the other side, have a language structure similar to a pyramid (he asks a question, she has a story). In order for women to get men to listen to them, they must talk how men like it.
The code switching we’ve discussed in class, however, is noticeably different: code switching, according to Glenn. A. Martinez in his piece “Mexican American Code Switching” is the “linguistic practice of sustaining usage of more than one language in a single sentence or discourse event” (94). Martinez states that code switching can be used in multiple contexts and goes on to further analyze the linguistic characteristics of Mexican Americans. If we apply this information within a gender binary, we are able to more eloquently see Dr. Nelson’s goal in writing her book: that women will learn to employ code switching when talking with men to more affectively communicate. In Nelson’s situation, the matrix language and the embedded language are within English vernacular: they are genderized. The matrix language, according to Nelson, is English speech that is marked as “female”, and the embedded language is English speech marked as “male”. Code switching, as Martinez claims, is utilized “in order to make a specific point or achieve a specific social effect” (94): e.g., women being able to talk to men in such a way that they will listen (thereby speaking in their “native” language). The code switching that Nelson implicates within her book can thus be assumed as situational code switching: as in, the participant, the topic, or the setting of the conversation motivates it. Code switching can “thus serve to change or to conform to the specific rights and obligations sets that emerge in conversational settings” (105). Additionally, it can be used to “change the rights and obligations set of a conversation from what it presently is to what they expect it to be” (104). Dr. Nelson is effectively advocating for women to manipulate men through the use of code switching—women, in using Dr. Nelson’s advice, are to toy with a situation in order to communicate with men in a way that helps achieve their ultimate goals.
Because of the women’s brain and its tendency to “ignite language”, code switching seems like the perfect opportunity to learn to effectively communicate with men. As Martinez recounts within his piece on Mexican Americans, “[they] use code switching in order to fulfill certain linguistic functions that are part and parcel of the reality of being bilingual. Code switching is used to fill lexical gaps, to preserve the force of linguistic routines, and in triggered response to other code switches. In addition, however, code switching is used to fulfill social obligations” (107). Code switching among men and women can be amended from Martinez’s Mexican American dichotomy: women use code switching in order to successfully communicate with men. Their bilingualism can be attributed to the English speech that is gendered (separate forms of English vernacular that can be coded as inherently masculine or inherently feminine) and their code switching from feminine to masculine speech is to fill the lexical gaps inherent within these different forms of communication. Code switching in this case is also used to fulfill social obligations, as Martinez says.
While initially, code switching between men and women may seem to be somewhat silly, in analyzing this interview as well as going over Martinez’s work I’ve been able to recognize more inherent forms of code switching that are a part of our every day lives. I can identity multiple ways in which men communicate with one another in ways that women do not (one thing that came to mind and can be examined later: handshakes!)—And because of this difference, there certainly are missing pieces (such as lexical gaps, as Martinez mentioned). It is worth noting Dr. Nelson’s point in writing this book: the inherent differences between men and women in regards to speech, and the attempts as a result of this to more strongly and successfully communicate with men in a way that acknowledges the gendered qualities of language.