English professor gives deeper insight on code-switching, language in this year’s common read

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. (Andrea Klepper | Collegian Media Group)

An associate professor in English talked to students Thursday about code-switching, language and justice based on the concepts from K-State Book Network’s 2018 book selection, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas.

Thomas’s novel tells the story of a young girl, Starr Carter, who is living in two different worlds and feels the pressure to act and speak a certain way in order to appeal to both.

Mary Kohn, who also holds a doctorate in linguistics, related this emotional strain to her lecture on code-switching and how it can be both a positive and negative tool. Kohn began with explaining how it is important for us to know how to act and speak in certain places.

Code-switching is when individuals alternate between languages or the ways they express ideas depending on the social setting of a conversation.

“People who code-switch often do so for a variety of reasons,” Kohn said. “Language starts to mean things to people, and the choices we make with language can often influence our interactions.”

Kohn said code-switching can be used as a defense mechanism against discrimination or as a tool to change others’ perceptions of the speaker.

“One thing that stood out to me was how we should listen with kind ears and really focus on the message rather than how it is spoken,” said Rachel Letellier, a junior in elementary education.

Kohn expanded on this idea, saying that language can also have an impact on justice. Kohn used was the Trayvon Martin case as an example. Martin was a 17-year-old unarmed boy who was shot and killed by a man named George Zimmerman.

Martin’s good friend, Rachel Jeantel, and star witness for the prosecution, grew up in a primarily black community. When protesting against mostly white individuals, Kohn said, she was labeled as ‘hard to understand’ and therefore not credible because of the way she spoke.

“We need to be aware of our biases so we don’t make our lazy ears take away from other people’s credibility,” Kohn said.

Some students listening to the lecture related personally with the message.

“You can be an intelligent person and not speak the typical white English,” Kristin Chaney, freshman in social work, said. “Language is a barrier to heritage, not intelligence.”

Kohn finished by encouraging her audience to take action when they feel someone is being discriminated against because of the way they speak.

“We need to speak up,” Kohn said. “Think about if you are really listening to the message or just finding an easy way to dismiss a person.”