Role Of Code-Switching in Mother Tongue And The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Categories: Amy Tan

Foreigner Code-switching

Foreigners in a new setting are faced with a very tough situation that can go either good or bad, and dictate the rest of their time in their setting. With transitioning to a new place being seen as either hit or miss, it can be said that a necessity of any foreigner is to use a language phenomenon called 'code-switching' when moving to a new setting and place to help adapt to the different norms and practices of the new setting.

Code-switching is when one deviates from how they normally speak and dictate themselves, to basically fit in with who and what is around them. Bullies in the school? Act like a bully too. How about a teacher who back talks the class? Chances are that the teacher is going to get an earful too. Not limited to just cultural foreigners like immigrants, this type of almost 'defensive code-switching' can also be found in situations like people moving to a different school or city.

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In both Amy Tan's “Mother Tongue” and Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, defensive code-switching is a prevalent theme that affects the characters in a positive way like allowing them to fit in with a certain group or societal norms, and helped contribute knowledge and experience to their stories.

Code-switching is also a very useful and seemingly vital tool for those who are at a certain disadvantage when compared to others in society, especially when faced with problems like crude stereotyping and blatant racism.

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In Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the novel centers around a scrawny and relatively different Native American high school boy named Arnold that lives amongst many vices, like pride and sloth, in a Indian reservation in the United States and all of his problems that he encounters from those vices growing up. From facing adversity and sadness his whole life because of his family's crippling poverty to the racial hardships and stereotypes faced at a new school that he transferred to, Arnold has a crucially tough time growing up in two different high schools with two different groups of people. One can say that the author is exemplifying how hard it is to transition to something and anything totally brand new, and have to code-switch to have some sort of comfort and ease in that different setting.

Overall, Alexie can be said that his novel confirms the thesis of foreigners being in tough situations because Arnold has to defensively code-switch throughout the novel to get where he wants; to fit in with everyone else. Arnold can even be said that he offensively code-switched at times throughout the novel, such as when he became essentially better than everyone else in his old school and maybe even reservation by exercising his gift of knowledge to his own benefit in front of others and eventually at his new and better school, Reardan. Take for example, how Arnold himself stated that he wanted to better himself and get away from his life on the reservation. A smart Indian was looked down upon, by his own people and the people who stereotyped Arnold. Even in his own culture on the reservation, Arnold put on a false front for those because of that fact, though he did yearn to stand out and again, become better than the rest.

One of the most prevalent examples of Arnold's defensive code-switching in the novel is when he moved to a different school, a school not made for foreigners and full of kids who stereotype Arnold negatively. Because Arnold was an intelligent person in a reservation school that was in shambles and was not going anywhere because of lack of funding, Arnold took it upon himself to do something about his shoddy life and make a positive change. That initiative alone is what makes Arnold a foreigner in his own culture and community, another problem that he faces and confronts with code-switching by changing his ways like putting up a false front for whoever he is with. On Arnold's first day at his new school, Rearden High School, even before going to class “They stared [at me]...Those white kids couldn't believe their I was Bigfoot or a UFO.” (Alexie 53) demonstrates that the kids are already making it a tough job for Arnold to fit it and be accepted. He must defensively code-switch to not stick out as much, and does this throughout the novel. As Arnold is walking into his first class, the kids stare again at him until one decides to actually make contact and speak to him, a girl named Penelope. She asks for his name and where he is from, the “rez”, and goes on to say “Oh...That's why you talk so funny.” (Alexie 58). This quotation embodies and backs up the fact that Arnold is so different that he even talks in a different way than everyone else, just like an actual immigrant from another country (or Amy Tan's Mother). He must learn to defensively code-switch to fit in with everyone else and try fit in. Arnold must again defensively code-switch when he is confronted by the school bullies who are much bigger than him. The bullies' leader, Roger, demeans Arnold by calling him names like “Tanto” and “Squaw Boy” and telling a very racist joke hoping for a reaction and he certainly gets one. Arnold puts Roger in his place with a hook to the head, and dumbfounded and shocked Roger said “...couldn't believe you punched me.” (Alexie 62). Defensively code-switching from the quiet weakling Arnold was to someone who embodied the aggressive and prone-to-fighting Native American spirit by “… [staring] at Roger and tried to look tough” (Alexie 62), again it supports the thesis of any foreigner having to change up some ways of how and who they are to achieve a goal of being accepted or fitting in, whether it is by peaceful means or not.

This defensive code-switching is very important to Arnold because it not only allows him to seemingly match with everyone else and be seen as normal, but also allows Arnold to defend himself against unwanted attention and actions. Those unwanted things include even more bullying from people like Roger and the rest at his school to matching with the rest of the population on the reservation. In the end itself, Arnold's aggressive defensive code-switching with Roger eventually did get him to his goal of fitting in and being accepted for the most part because in one instance, it gained Arnold numerous friends like Roger, who eventually stood up for him when discriminated against in class. That instance was when the teacher was unfair against Arnold, and everyone in the class walked out of the room to protest. The defensive code-switching done in the novel helps demonstrate how hard it is to be in a totally new place against societal norms and fit in with everyone else. This theme is mirrored perfectly in Amy Tan's 'Mother Tongue' except from the essay collection The Opposite of Fate. In 'Mother Tongue', the author, a daughter of a Chinese immigrant, recounts numerous hardships and instances where her and her mother, a Chinese non-English speaking immigrant living in the United States, has to use some sort of code-switching in order to adapt or fit in with the norms they are both learning as they spend time in the States. Both authors capitalized on the fact that society tends to belittle and separate themselves from outsiders or immigrants to that place, and both authors used code-switching as a theme or way to help lessen that impact.

In 'Mother Tongue', there are many aspects that embody the stereotypical need to defensively code-switch. With Amy's Mother being an immigrant in a new country, the language of the states is something new to her, and her almost deficiency in fluency and dictation of the English language can be seen as a debilitating factor that affects her life in a very negative way. One instance that exemplifies the fact that there really is some sort of a deficiency in her language skills is when Amy Tan recalled that even though her Mother reads various stately English magazine publications like Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, her friends can barely understand fifty percent of what Mrs. Tan actually says. That is to say, that at most, every other word that she speaks is just about understandable, while the rest are complete nonsensical Chinese-English mashed together, for the untrained ear at least. This shows that there definitely is a need to code-switch for Mrs. Tan, that if she even wants to begin to communicate to the rest of the new society she is a part of, then she will have to diverge from her usual language and dictation to fit in.

Other examples of code-switching in the excerpt share the commonality of how Amy Tan was affected by her Mother's skills in the English language. The first instance is where Amy was helping her Mother with a problem with her stockbroker. The reader was told of how the lack of skills in communicating gave way to open and prominent discrimination, from tellers in banks to workers in stores and restaurants not taking her seriously or giving lackluster service. This almost 'favoritism' of English speakers over non-English speakers demonstrates that again, there is a need to defensively code-switch to get things that should be freely given, such as respectful service. The stockbroker that the Tans were dealing with can be seen as brushing Mrs. Tan off because of her skills, and Amy was the one who had to fix it somehow. On the phone with the broker and impersonating her Mother at her own request, Amy had to aggressively argue, complain, and threaten the broker using her English skills to be taken seriously. Their little 'guise', as they called it, shows one reason why she would need to code-switch, and that is again discrimination against outsiders or anyone or anything else that is different. A personal opinion of my own, I agree with the fact that in times of need, one who is in the middle of a very stark and different transitioning period must certainly code-switch to be accepted or adapt to the new setting. I say this because as far as I am concerned, everyone has code-switched at least once in their life, no matter what. It is a quintessential part of daily life, and does not discriminate. A process that I use every day when I go to class at SFSU, I must code-switch from my normal social and talkative self when with friends to someone who is quiet, critical, and really attentive in class. Just like how Arnold used it at his new school, I used it at my new school also.

One other ironic example of when code-switching was used defensively was when Amy herself used it to go against societal norms. Amy stated that she “...enjoy[s] the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me.” (Tan 278). She goes on to state that the stereotype in America is that so many Asian students, like herself, go onto Premed or Engineering programs, and that they are essentially steered away from Writing and Literature because of their parents' wishes or their teachers. Amy Tan effectively code-switched from that Asian student norm and expectation to go against that and challenge it by becoming a writer and following what she has wanted to do.

When moving or transitioning to a totally different place while facing adversity like stereotypes and racism, defensive code-switching is a definite must because of the positives that it can bring. Positives like being accepted into a certain group of people or the relief from unjust and unfair discrimination are just a few to name.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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Role Of Code-Switching in Mother Tongue And The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (2024, Feb 16). Retrieved from

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