In the constant news cycle of controversy, the latest entry is RRR actors’ Ram Charan and Jr NTR’s accent while speaking to reporters during the Golden Globes 2023. Many people have called the accents ‘cringe’; but the events did bring back a conversation about code-switching.
In its most basic form, code-switching refers to when a person changes or adapts their accent, their syntax, grammar, or even body language or appearance to fit a dominant culture.
It’s what we casually throw around as “fitting in” or the very embodiment of the phrase, “When in Rome, do as Romans do.”
The criticism being levelled against the RRR stars isn’t new. After actor Priyanka Chopra got her first international project Quantico and continued to mark a presence outside India, she was frequently trolled for putting on a “fake accent”.
Why Do People ‘Code Switch’?
A lot of the flak that people receive for code-switching behaviour comes from people believing that it’s a conscious choice the person makes. That isn’t always true; at least not in the way we view “fake accents”.
Code-switching has a long history based in colonialism and linguistic hegemony.
Even during early schooling, the English that is taught in several Tier-1 cities in India is 'americanised'. We would often lose marks or points in debates for ‘incorrect diction’.
This burden of accurate diction would often fall on kids who came from oppressed communities or ones that didn’t have the same access to education as their peers.
Is Code-Switching a Survival Tactic?
People of colour, and especially Black people living in predominantly White places, have often brought up the fact that their vernacular language or slang could put them in danger.
While the #BlackLivesMatter protests brought the issue of police brutality to the forefront in a big way, disproportionate policing of minorities across the world isn’t a new phenomenon.
And a lot of times, discrimination rises directly from someone placed in a dominant culture reading a person’s cultural markers. This extends to people from Asian and South-Asian countries as well.
The “Indian accent”, for instance, has been mocked in popular culture for decades; even though several Indians have pointed out that the sing-song nature of these portrayals was pure caricature. From Apu to The Big Bang Theory, the accent that deviates from the predominant British or American pronunciations was seen as an anomaly and as fair ground for mockery.
Even with the rise of queercoding in cinema, often positing queer people and their mannerisms as evil or funny, several queer people have had to code-switch when they’re around a cisgender heterosexual majority (consider films like Lambert Hillyer's Dracula's Daughter, Sangharsh, Mister Mummy). This code-switching, too, often comes from a place of wanting to feel safe.
Why, then, do we criticise the likes of Jr NTR and Priyanka Chopra for adapting to their settings when code-switching is a survival tactic for many?
Is There a Cost to Code-Switching?
Many (mostly online) have argued that code-switching means “betraying” one’s culture. While accusing individuals of betrayal because they’re relying on an age-old survival tactic isn’t the way to go, many linguists have also studied the effect that code-switching has.
The main issue with code-switching is that the burden of this “fitting in” always falls on oppressed or minority communities.
While people from said communities might even face discrimination at work if they do not code-switch (lesser pay, lesser opportunities, a lower chance of promotions), oppressor or dominant cultures often appropriate their culture for clout and profit.
Jamila Lyiscott, a scholar and the author of ‘Black Appetite. White Food,’ said about McDonalds’ slogan, "I found in my research that this slogan is participating in a feature of African-American English called consonant variation - the dropping of the letter 'G'. This very statement, 'I'm lovin' it' is something that would be corrected in a classroom space if I were to write it in my paper.”
“Yet this billion-dollar corporation is able to utilise this linguistic practice for mass appeal and to capitalise on this cultural form of expression.”Jamila Lyiscott in her TED Talk
This ‘losing of one’s culture’ is a conversation that needs to be had and is helping people from said marginalised communities fight the need for code-switching. It’s helping them find their communities and within those communities, find the space required to fight systemic injustices that lead to a need for practices like code-switching.
However, their fight is against the oppressors, as it should be. Criticising people for code-switching is and was never, the answer to a much bigger problem.