Stop Talking African – Code-Switching on Staten Island

Sometimes they just hang up on her.

When Princess Gaye, a 16-year-old Liberian refugee, goes job hunting over the phone, prospective employers sometimes simply hang up the phone after hearing her thick Liberian accent.

It happens so often that Princess has learned to mask her native dialect, almost comically.

She overcompensates by using valley girl-esque mallrat speech, peppered with the words such as “like” and “ya’know.”

This habit, or variations of it, is a common practice known as code-switching.

“Code-switching is not a new phenomenon,” said Bonnie Urciuoli, Professor of Anthropology at Hamilton College. “It appears to have always have been a normal phenomenon in immigrant language communities.”

Even on Staten Island, traditionally the city’s most homogeneous borough in this linguistically diverse city, a growing Liberian refugee population is code-switching to assimilate. Even though they speak English, language poses a significant barrier to acceptance at school and work. Schools on the Island, facing a clash of languages and dialects in the classroom, encourage students to use an “inside” or “classroom” dialect at school.

The Park Hill neighborhood is home to a Liberian diaspora that number around six to eight thousand, according to local organizers, joining the Mexican immigrant community there. The refugees escaped the war-torn country in the ’90s and have settled in the public housing projects of Park Hill and Stapleton. They speak English, but the dialect is incomprehensible to native New Yorkers.

But what happens when these languages and accents collide in the classroom?

“It’s very difficult,” said Sara Signorelli, an art teacher at P.S. 16 in the St. George area of Staten Island. “The Mexican kids speak little English. The Liberians speak English but sometimes I can’t understand them.”

Signorelli and other teachers attempt to foster a common, neutral speech in the classroom, starting from kindergarten.

Urciuoli said that young children are most adept at code-switching.

“In most switching situations, those who switch most fluently are those who grow up doing it,” Urciuoli said. “Anyone of any age may be a code-switcher though, since it is most fluently learned from childhood.”

Princess was still a child when she came to Staten Island in 2002, along with her cousin, Amanda Gaye, to live with her grandmother.

Princess said that some of the elder Liberian refugees have not learned how to code-switch.

“She can’t talk on the phone,” Princess said about her grandmother. “So she gives us the phone and tells us what to say.”

Princess’ cousin, Amanda, is also adept at code-switching. Amanda is six months pregnant and is wary of the language difficulties that may face her child.

“I don’t want my baby to stay with my grandmother,” Amanda said. “I don’t want her to speak like I do.”

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