Code Switching – A Caribbean Perspective

By Aesha Duval (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Growing up in the Caribbean, our parents, and teachers told us to “speak proper English,” and there was a time and a place for speaking in your island dialect. This stayed with me through my schooling in the U.S. Virgin Islands, through college in North Carolina and into my adulthood and professional life. Lately, I find myself questioning, am I compromising my cultural and racial identity by subconsciously toning down my Crucian dialect? Or am I doing what I must so that I am heard, understood, and respected by my mostly white American counterparts?

Much has been written about “code-switching,” defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another.” Research and studies have been done to determine the reasons black professionals code-switch in the workplace and the repercussions of doing so.

Shutterstock images

The authors of this Harvard Business Review article define code-switching broadly as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

My code-switch origins

I was taught how to “code-switch” early on in life without even realizing it. My parents are first-generation immigrants from St. Lucia, an island in the Eastern Caribbean. They grew up speaking French Creole (Kwéyòl) or patois and were schooled under the British education system. Speaking proper English was also ingrained in them as children, while speaking patois was taboo during those times (1940s-1950s). My mother explained that the elders viewed patois as the language of the uneducated, and to be taken seriously, you had to speak the Queen’s English.

That didn’t stop my parents from speaking Kwéyòl amongst their friends and colleagues, but they were never taught how to read or write it. After they immigrated to St. Croix and to further assimilate, my parents did not pass the language to their American born children and only spoke Kwéyòl to each other. Sadly, I can only speak and understand certain words and phrases in Kwéyòl, and constantly tell my parents they made a mistake. They should have taught us the language, along with the other cultural practices they handed down to us. Alas, at the time, they did not know better.

St. Lucia Education officials now recognize the language as part of the social and cultural identity of St. Lucians and are working towards teaching its students to be bilingual and biliterate in both English and Kwéyòl.

Like flipping a light switch

At home, my accent was that of my St. Lucian relatives. Among my peers at school, it changed to a Crucian accent. Sometimes there was overlapping, which led to me being teased at school for sounding like a “gasso,” a derogatory term for a French patois speaker.

College was the next challenge. I prayed professors would not call on me because my accent attracted attention that I did not want. I was, after all, a black girl from the Caribbean attending a predominantly white institution in North Carolina. I studied communications and being clearly understood by my professors and peers without having to repeat myself was important to me and unlike my childhood years, this was a more conscious effort on my part. Slowing down my speech and speaking standard English and switching back to my island dialect when gathered around family or friends from home eventually became second nature. Like flipping a light switch!

When I started my reporting career in North Carolina, I was a minority in the newsroom and there were challenges navigating that environment. I was able to find a balance where I could be myself, talk about where I was from and still connect with my fellow reporters and news sources. 

I eventually made the decision to accept a reporting job back in the Virgin Islands. The truth is, I missed my family and I missed home. Despite being back in the Caribbean and no longer in the minority (the population of the U.S. territory is predominantly black), I still found myself in professions where I had to code-switch to fit into norms for each work environment – again as a news reporter, as a public relations specialist for a politician and now as a law librarian in the courts.


Research suggests code-switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of black people and persons of color run counter to what are considered “appropriate” behaviors and norms for a specific environment. “Black students selectively code-switch between standard English in the classroom and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) with their peers, which elevates their social standing with each intended audience. There are also examples of black people having to code-switch to survive police interactions, such as “acting polite and respectful when stopped” and “avoiding running even if you are afraid.”

Today, code-switching has taken on more than just language. It can refer to any member of any marginalized or underrepresented identity adapting to the dominant environment around them in any context. It is difficult for researchers to document the benefits or disadvantages of code-switching since many individuals underreport how often they do it. 

A March 2022 study published in Affective Science explored the relationship between code-switching and its potential psychological consequences. Researchers noted code-switching runs the risk of diminishing a person’s capacity to see an individual as they are or result in professional issues such as burnout and emotional exhaustion.


As humans, we all want to connect and be included. One of the rules in effective communication is knowing your audience. In most environments, particularly the workplace, you read the room, understand the audience, and pick up on those behavioral and verbal cues. Researchers for the most part do not consider code-switching to be harmful unless it is done as a means of survival or personal advancement. If code-switching becomes a subconscious behavior, the mental health risks could be minimized, according to researchers.

Shutterstock images 

“When we force individuals to code-switch when it doesn’t come natural to them, it’s now a stressor,” wrote Dr. Myles Durkee, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “It’s a stress we’re putting on people from marginalized identities, and that should be on the professional radar.”

I don’t believe I have compromised my cultural and racial identity by code-switching in the many workspaces I’ve navigated during my professional life. I’ve stayed true to myself. That is not to say I haven’t experienced the frustrations, mistreatment and micro-aggressions that come with being a minority in a workplace. I most certainly have! Organizations must work harder to create an environment that promotes diversity, inclusion and belonging. It is not enough to have a diverse workforce and for them to be included. Marginalized employees should feel like they are valued, they are seen, they are heard and that they belong in their workspace.


Hill, K. Dara. (2009). Code-Switching Pedagogies and African American Student Voices: Acceptance and Resistance. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Oct., 2009), pp. 120-131. Retrieved May 30, 2023.

McLuney, C. L., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R., and Durkee, M. (2019, November 15). The costs of code-switching. Harvard Business Review.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Code-switching. In Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary. Retrieved May 30, 2023, from

Mendes-Franco, J. (2022, May 30). St. Lucia plans to implement the teaching of Kwéyòl in schools — but is it enough to revitalise the language?, T. (2022, May 23).

Code Switching: What does it mean and why do people do it?,values%2C%22%20Durkee%20told%20Health.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.