English/Spanish Codeswitching: Tensions and Questions

by Janine Schall, University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, TX

Los Gatos Black on Halloween

Throughout the month of May we’ve discussed children’s books that use English/Spanish codeswitching. As a group, these books are a valuable part of any collection, because they highlight the diversity of language use and show children who codeswitch that their language and culture are worthwhile enough to appear in books. However, books that contain codeswitching are also a source of tension. Oral and written codeswitching is contested, even in the communities where it is common. In addition, the books themselves can sometimes be critiqued for cultural authenticity and poor language use. Finally, there are some questions about how to use these books with children.

Codeswitching as a Contested Linguistic Site

While codeswitching is common in many bilingual and/or immigrant communities, there is often disagreement about whether or not it should be valued and encouraged. Selia, a second grade teacher at a bilingual school, noted that many parents and teachers see codeswitching as negative. Several other teachers in our group recounted experiences with family or community members insisting on “proper” language, either English or Spanish, but not a mixture of the two. Linguists may see codeswitching as a valuable communicative tool, but dominate society often sees it as a mark of low status, poor education and ignorance. In my view, this set of beliefs is an even more important reason for teachers to use books that contain codeswitching in order to open discussion spaces about language use and to promote the value of all languages. However, others see this as reason to eliminate oral and written codeswitching from schools and instead focus on standard English and standard Spanish.

Authenticity of the Books and Language Use

As with all literature that features cultural or linguistic minority groups, books that contain codeswitching should be quality literature that authentically represents the group. Before any book is used with children, it should be evaluated for authenticity.

The teachers generally enjoyed all the English/Spanish codeswitching books that they looked at, but had occasional concerns about their cultural authenticity. Leslie, who is from Mexico City, liked the fact that Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin showed differences between life in Mexico and life in the United States. However, other students felt that the book relied on stereotypes of Mexican life, with the Mexican character living on a rural farm, shopping in open-air markets and playing marbles while the American character carefully explains to him what skyscrapers and subways are. Leslie also questioned Los Gatos Black on Halloween, saying it, “…mixed The Day of the Dead (which is on Nov. 2) and Halloween (a tradition from the Celts on October 31st). I believe that children can be confused with this aspect.”

The teachers also were intrigued by the varieties of Spanish used in the books. Just like in English, there are many dialects of Spanish. As the teachers read and discussed the books, they repeatedly noted differences in how they would codeswitch or choose Spanish words in comparison to how the author used language. For example, in the book Just in Case Señor Calavera takes a granizado, or snow cone, to Grandma Beetle for her birthday. Snow cones are extremely popular in South Texas, but the word people use in this region is raspa.

Using Books that Contain Codeswitching with Children

I asked the teachers how books that contain codeswitching could be used with students. They came up with a variety of ideas, including:

• Using the books to talk about language issues
• Reading and discussing the books to learn about Mexican-American culture and traditions
• Creating a Venn diagram to teach about comparison and contrast after reading I Love Saturdays y domingos
• Using Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin when teaching children how to write letters

However, some teachers had concerns about using these books with children. Ida, a high school teacher, stated that she wouldn’t use them at all with her students. She felt that they might be appropriate for younger children, but not high schoolers. Mayra, a preschool teacher, thought they might be confusing for monolingual English children, and said, “I would prefer to read stories that have the entire book written in two languages.” Several teachers also worried about their fluency in Spanish. Anita said, “Personally, it would be difficult for me to read aloud since my Spanish is not fluent.”

Despite the concerns that some people have about books that contain codeswitching, I believe that they can be incredibly valuable as a way to open discussions about language use and language variety. What do you think? Would you bring books that contain codeswitching into your classroom and library? How would you use these books with children?

Many thanks to Chris, Gracia, Anita, Selia, Ida, Mayra, Leslie, Irma, and Paula for their help with this blog series.

Editor’s Note: Codeswitching in a global society has been further discussed by Janine Schall regarding its purposes and translation issues in children’s literature and holiday picture books.

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