I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a community where nearly everyone spoke a foreign language. Some families spoke Spanish, some spoke Arabic, or Hindi, or Swedish, or Chinese. And then there was my family, who spoke…well, I am still trying to figure that one out.
Now, I mean my family no disrespect. For better or for worse, they are my family, and I love my parents and siblings dearly. But when I was a kid, I often felt as though my family and I spoke completely different languages. A typical childhood conversation went something like this:
Sister #1: Ain’t y’all got nothin’ better to do than sit up here watchin’ TV?
Me: Well, you should not assume that we are all watching television. In fact, I happen to be reading a novel.
Sister #1: (tongue click) Don’t get smart.
Me: Fine. I’ll get stupid instead. And by the way, there’s no such word as “ain’t.”
But I was wrong. There was a such word as “ain’t.” My family and relatives used it all the time, and to me, it was even more annoying than listening to static on the radio. They also insisted upon dropping their “g’s” at the end of verbs, and adding words where words were unnecessary. “That dog be barkin’ all night long.”
“Barking,” I would correct. But they didn’t care. My family was quite comfortable with their style of communication. As usual, it was I who was the alien.
“Why you gotta be talkin’ like a white girl all the time?” my relatives would ask, convinced that black people were supposed to speak what I considered to be a substandard form of the English language. “Cain’t you speak like regular folks?”
But no, I could not. Even when I tried my best, I was unable to code switch. Whenever I attempted it, my family would laugh at me.
“She be talkin’ like a white girl tryin’ to sound like a black girl,” they would say. I couldn’t win. So I gave up and continued to speak in my proper, alien, almost-perfect-English language. Until high school, that is. Because I finally learned how to code switch. Well, not to the language spoken by my family. But being a typical Northern California teenager, I became a fluent speaker of Valspeak. ‘Cause like, it was sooo rad, y’know?
“You talk like such a white girl,” my family still told me.
But it no longer bothered me. I just shrugged and said, “As if! Omigawd…what-ever!”