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  • Writer's pictureJessie Leverzencie

Psychology of the tongue

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

By Jessie Leverzencie

Sourced from Unsplash

Is code switching a process dependent on the dominant group in a room, a question of space and time or what social norms are? These were just some of the questions raised when in conversation with Bethany*, a psychologist, who sheds light on the psychology of the tongue. Bethany had started out her career as an educator at a public, predominantly coloured and black school in South Africa. She is now at a private, predominantly white school practicing as a psychologist. Bethany describes the switch between the two schools as navigating ¨two different worlds[...] in a lot of ways.¨ Not only is there a vast difference between the two schools when it comes to opportunities offered, but also when it comes to language dynamics and how the spaces around articulating oneself are navigated.

Du Bois wrote about the feeling of being caught between two identities as ´Double Consciousness´, in his book, The Souls of Black People:

¨It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.¨

Language is a fundamental aspect of our identities. One´s way of speaking is one of the first things that people judge us by. As UKEssays says: ¨this does not mean that language solely determines our interpretation of a person but plays a fundamental role.¨ Language and linguistics form an integral part of how one navigates different spaces in society.

¨Language has been a salient feature of making group membership and social identity. [...]As Baldwin sees it, language is a tool to reveal private identity and to connect or disconnect an individual from the communal identity. [...] Language is a creator of social identity and a medium to gain self-esteem and power in the society.[...]

Language as research has shown is a symbol of different social identities and it is used to construct a particular identity (Baldwin).¨

In Kazuaki Kumagai´s thesis on accent, language and identity, they elaborate and explain that code switching or the dynamics around accents can be divided into two scenarios: ¨context-dependent constructions of social identity, and reconstructions of social identity with higher agency.¨ Kumagai writes on the link between accent and identity creation and says:

¨The power relations between perceived accent/social identity and desirable accent/social identity demonstrated the trigger of the reconstructions of social identities with higher agency. [...] English speakers tried to reconstruct their social identities through trials for achieving the desirable accents by emulation of desirable accents or adjustment of their own accents. ¨

At her previous school, Bethany describes how ¨everyone sounded the same there, so there wasn't really as much of a stark difference like there is here [the private school]. I don't think it was as highlighted there.¨ She found herself adopting the colloquialisms of the students and adapting to the dominant dialect of the school. That experience is starkly different to her current career at the private school, where she has observed or understood an almost unwritten expectation, that students of all races fit into the mould of what it means to be a ´private school student´. Bethany has viewed this mould as often coming with an accent, amongst other facets.

Bethany reflects that the dynamics around the persona of what a private school student is like, seems to include the idea that a certain ´accent´ needs to be adopted, that individuals need to dress a certain way and act a certain way, which she understands many students adopting as the status quo. Bethany considers Grade 8 and 9 a time where many learners grapple with existential questions of identity, which could result in either conforming and fitting in or being bullied for their difference. She views this adoption as inevitably resulting in the shedding of oneself in order to act according to the norm. In Bethany´s experience, she has viewed this as an often uncomfortable process, more specifically felt by students of colour. Bethany´s thoughts reflect that some students of colour, who are at the school on a bursary or scholarship, find this adjustment even more difficult, due to the fact that they come from environments where their culture is still rich and a large part of who they are. She ponders that perhaps students returning to the school environment, feel an expected adjustment to be made in order to fit into an environment where their cultural backgrounds form a small minority of the wider school population.

¨I speak a lot about masks with my kids,¨ Bethany explains. ¨It's a very multifaceted thing how identity comes about,¨ which Bethany helps her students navigate through conversations around the different personas and masks they adopt between the given situation, environment and circumstance. Bethany says that it tends to be an attitude for students to want to conform to a certain norm. ¨There is this expectation, unwritten, that you fit into the mould,¨ Bethany says.

Bethany reflects that the private school student persona is a small niche. For those students staying on the school property in the hostel, that niche is even smaller, making it increasingly difficult for students (especially students of colour) to integrate and find their place. This tugging of identity can usually be attributed to a clash in cultural practices, as students try to hold onto their home culture, whilst simultaneously trying to fit into their private school´s predominantly white culture. Bethany describes some of the resulting personas from this transition are that of the stereotypical ¨rugger bugger¨ (rugby playing student), who talks with what is commonly known as the ¨boytjie¨ accent. Bethany´s impression is that there may some discomfort experienced when students attempt to integrate into various groups, for example sports, where personas of top sports teams are emulated.

For those students of colour who have not integrated themselves to a large extent, there is often clustering in groups based on race, Bethany notices. This is a common practice amongst many groups of people, which links to the common idea of comfort and safety in what is familiar. Bethany describes how¨it´s comfortable to go back to your natural language, that you just want to able to breathe and not have to think about things in your second language.¨

Due to South Africa's Apartheid past, language also created divides between people of colour who share histories that are somewhat divided (due to the Group Areas Act), yet irrevocably connected as well. It is this shared history and common language that has created what Bethany views as a deeper understanding, which fosters connection and the opportunity for individuals to feel more at home. This provides individuals with the freedom to be who they truly are. This common ground, creates what Bethany calls a ¨form of strength and support,¨ based on this common understanding.

For those students that choose not to conform, peer pressure and bullying have been sad realities in some cases. Bethany has understood that for some students with stronger characters and personalities, sticking to their own way of speaking has allowed for them to stand out and for others to start adopting certain colloquialisms and slang from them. ¨It's almost become their trademark,¨ Bethany explains.

This conversation begs the question as to whether the mask one wears when it comes to different personas and code switching in different environments is due to a question of dominance. Is the adoption of certain masks because of the dominant culture or voice in a certain environment or a question of space and time? Do we remove the masks we wear when we, ourselves, are the dominant voices allowing us to vocalise ourselves in the way we please? As UKEssays writes, ¨language defines our ethnic group that we belong to, our status in the social stratification, and also determines the power we hold in our society.¨

* (name concealed to protect the identity of the interviewee and her clients)

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