What is code-meshing? (with comparisons to code-switching and translanguaging)

In this definition post, I discuss the term “code-meshing,” which comes from Vershawn Young, an African-American scholar, and Suresh Canagarajah, a Sri Lankan scholar who teaches in the United States. In the term “code-meshing,” Young and Canagarajah provide possibly the best solution to the social and educational problems that arise when learning “standard” English is promoted as a gateway to success, and also when “other” languages/dialects are uncritically promoted as a counterbalance.

The origins of code-meshing: A compelling story

Young, V. A. (2004). Your average nigga. College Composition and Communication, 55(4), 693-715. https://doi.org/10.2307/4140667

The idea of code-meshing was born in U.S. higher education in the early 1990s, when U.S. colleges/universities struggled to hire more black writing teachers, especially black male teachers, to better “connect” with black male students. At Columbia College (CC) in Chicago, 2% of black male students finished their undergraduate degree after four years, and only 4% after five (p. 693). During this period, Vershawn Young, “an ambitious twenty-four year old, with two master’s degrees and working towards a PhD” (p. 696), was hired as the only black male faculty member at Columbia and promoted to a full-time, nontenured-track position after one year, as his college’s administrators hoped he would help retain black male students.

Young’s article, published in 2004—the first half, autobiography; the second half, theory; the footnotes, where “code-meshing” as a term finally appears—begins with a description of the kind of person he was at the time he joined Columbia: “known… for leaving jobs and losing jobs. ‘Good jobs!’ [his] Momma called them, as she shook her head, rolled her eyes, and complained that these were the teaching jobs she sent her ‘smart’ son to college to get, not to quit” (p. 694). Basically, with every teaching job the 20-something-year-old got, he tended to do a song-and-dance about why the students, teachers, and administrators in that school (whether they were black, white, blue collar or white collar) needed to engage in more self-critique (pp. 694-695):

– At a high school of working class white students, he had gotten himself “run out” by teaching literature on racial discrimination that made people feel uncomfortable;

– At a high school of working class black students, he had been at odds with males who called him effeminate and sissy for his intellectualism, and a black female principal who encouraged him to be more masculine;

– At a high school of white collar, liberal whites (where his Momma thought he’d finally found his niche!) where people wouldn’t mind if he taught one or two black poems, he ended up being too critical by teaching Countee Cullen’s “Incident” and found himself face to face with white administrators with a look that said “kiss my ass”;

… so at last, when he obtained a job at Columbia—not Columbia University but a college in Chicago where he would be teaching introductory composition to black students in their first year—his mother lectured him: “You should be glad that any place is taking a chance on you. … Don’t go making them white folks feel uncomfortable by talking about race…” to which he replied, “Momma, my problems ain’t just with white folks” (pp. 694-695).

The article goes on to explain that Young’s mother had raised her nine children in a ghetto made famous by Alex Kotlowitz in a book titled There Are No Children Here (1992), and even more famous by Oprah Winfrey in the movie version of the book. However, his Momma was not like the poor, helpless mothers in that book and movie: 

All nine of Momma’s kids at the very least had graduated from high school, completed some college, and worked professional jobs. Neither one of the four boys nor any of the five girls were teen parents. There are no drug addicts among us nor any who have spent time in jail (except for me). This Momma image is not the common ghetto stereotype of the momma who struggles but ultimately fails to save her children from the tribulations of ghetto life, as is unvaryingly presented in Kotlowitz’s book. (p. 695)

In fact, it was not that categories of birth (black, male, blue collar) made it easy for Young to relate to his students (even though this was what white administrators and colleagues at his institution hoped would happen). Instead, it was the individual trajectory of his life that made relating to black male students even less likely to happen. He had been “a rather bookish boy with a high-pitched voice in the ghetto—a boy often teased, called sissy and fag, because I liked performing in school plays instead of playing sports. It didn’t help that I had no ‘raunchy macho,’ or couldn’t develop ‘that special [pimp] walk,’ or that I was no good at the ‘distinctive handshakes and slang’ that early childhood education researcher Janice E. Hale-Benson describes as the ‘common manhood rites’ for black boys” (Young, 2004, p. 697).

This is why, when introduced to a traditional (white) education during childhood, he embraced mainstream schooling. At the same time, he wondered “what it was that white folks didn’t like about me” (p. 697). Ultimately, this led him to the question: “what race wants me?” (p. 698). He didn’t identify with macho/mainstream black male culture, but neither did he want to become one of those “middle class blacks [who] repudiate and distance themselves from other (ghetto) blacks” (p. 698).

And then, something terrible happened. One day, a young black man walked in late to his first-year composition class at Columbia, smelling of fresh marijuana, wearing baggy clothes and headphones, bobbing his head to the music. In Young’s head, the N-word came up. Immediately. With this instinctive scorn came a wave of jealousy, at his own inability to be what the student was: a real black dude. Given his bookish way of speaking, he confessed that he was worried that Cam, the student, would see him as a traitor to his race and class. (It is well documented across sociology, sociolinguistics, and educational studies that blue collar boys—of various racial and cultural backgrounds—reject school because it threatens their masculinity.) 

At this point, the article begins its second (theoretical) half. Young takes us through 5 ways to reconcile the threat that he and the student posed to each other, each being a different pedagogical approach to academic writing instruction in English.

  1. Total assimilation, i.e., the student forgetting Black English Vernacular (BEV), and only speaking/writing middle class White English Vernacular (WEV), also known as academic English, for social mobility;
  2. What Young calls code-switching, or both of them speaking/writing middle class WEV in academic settings and speaking/writing BEV in other social settings, even though this is not what pscyholinguists or sociolinguists understand as code-switching—instead, they would describe this racist and self-defeating practice as a form of diglossia, i.e., different codes for different social situations.
  3. Pluralism, or when different languages/dialects are used and equally valued in academic settings, but with clear boundaries of each language/dialect and “native” representatives of each one, which would lead both men to be culturally essentialized by well meaning peers and colleagues, and constantly having to perform their blackness stereotypically;
  4. What I will call linguistic individualism, or when individuals use as many languages/dialects they want in their individual repertoire for the task at hand, without tying their identity to any—which is non-essentializing and individually opportunistic, but leaves people unable to claim any of their heritage;
  5. Code-meshing, which is the use of the whole language repertoire in every context, as no one is a “100% pure speaker” of any named code (language, dialect, ethnic, racial, classed or gendered way of speaking) in his/her/their individual repertoire. The young Young—bad pun intended!—was only the most extreme example of this universal human condition, which also affected Cam and everyone else. [For another scholar who writes about this universal human condition, see McNamara (2011).] In Young’s (2004) view, we need to accept that we all code-mesh to get our messages across in all social contexts, and that code-meshing speaks to each person’s complex cultural inheritance. It is the only way that people with different backgrounds and life experiences can build bridges across their unique linguistic repertoires.

Code-meshing (a term that finally appears in Young’s article in footnote #8, also discussed in his doctoral dissertation and in this half-hour interview with PBS) is very similar to Ofelia García’s and Li Wei’s theory of dynamic translanguaging, a minor difference being that code-meshing makes the individual rather than the bi/multilingual translanguaging community the focus of the analysis.

The rise of code-meshing: From first-year comp to second language writing studies for international grad students

Canagarajah, S. (2011a). Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal95(3), 401-417. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01207.x

Canagarajah, S. (2011b). Translanguaging in the classroom: Emerging issues for research and pedagogy. Applied Linguistics Review2, 1-28. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110239331.1

In 2013, Young wrote:

Perhaps linguist Suresh Canagarajah stands among the most notable advocates of code-meshing, since it’s his theoretical and practical scholarship on the concept that has propelled it from an explanation I put in a footnote to a subject of primary focus in journal articles, edited volumes, dissertations, and published monographs. (Young 2013, p. 139)

The Sri Lankan-born Canagarajah published at least two key articles on code-meshing as he and Young cited each other in the early 2000s. One of these articles begins by discussing how rural communities in South Asia, Africa, and South America have “featured considerable heterogeneity and multilingualism” (Canagarajah, 2011b, p. 3), dating back to pre-colonial times. When it comes to everyday oral conversation, translanguaging is quite natural. However, when it comes to academic writing, translanguaging needs to be cultivated because of our diglossic assumptions about academic writing (i.e., only one standard code is appropriate in an academic context). This is where translanguaging receives the term “code-meshing” under Canagarajah, to refer to its cultivated form in academic and professional situations.

Canagarajah (2011b, p. 9) writes: “Teaching translanguaging as a practice (not natural competence), I demonstrate from a course I taught that making opportunities for critical analysis will help students develop their translanguaging proficiency further.” He showed that these issues are especially important in the teaching of writing—which, unlike classroom conversation, is a formal activity that is often graded (2011b, p. 7). In his case, the course was a graduate-level course on teaching second language writing. His students were Masters and PhD students in the Applied Linguistics department at Penn State; many at the PhD level were presumably scholarship-holders.

It is here that Canagarajah’s context differs from Young’s, and it is open to discussion how the two approaches to code-meshing may be different or similar. In one context, educationally disadvantaged students from the U.S., most of whom translanguage naturally between languages/dialects (e.g., Spanish-English/BEV-WEV), must be encouraged to do so in academic writing, against the status quo. In the other, international students, who may or may not translanguage readily between named codes (e.g. Arabic/English) depending on their individual language acquisition experiences, are encouraged to do so in academic writing against the status quo, which positions them as “second language writers” even if their English education likely surpasses that of many people in their countries of origin. Canagarajah writes:

A major assignment in the course was the writing of a literacy autobiography to critically reflect on students’ own writing development and translate their insights into pedagogical practices. … I must acknowledge that I did give students samples of translanguaged writing (e.g., Smitherman, 2003) and readings that complicate autonomous literacy (Canagarajah, 2002) as part of the course syllabus. The students were also aware of examples of my own critical and translanguaged writing. (Canagarajah, 2011b, pp. 10-11)

The rest of the article, and another article published the same year (Canagarajah, 2011a) focuses on the work of a student from Saudi Arabia called Buthainah. From these two articles, I have found two important pedagogical takeaways as Canagarajah developed what teaching code-meshing looks like in practice.

1. What code-meshing teaches us about “error correction”

Canagarajah (2011b) views error treatment in code-meshed writing in this way: instead of spending so much time teaching what is right/wrong in academic writing with no explanation rather than “just because,” he argues that we should spend more time helping students to understand the effects of different language choices on a diverse audience. We should also help them learn how to mix languages, dialects, and/or registers (depending on what is available in their individual language repertoires) effectively in the same composition in ways relevant to task and audience, using skilled models (e.g., previous excellent student work, published authors, ourselves as teachers) for how this is done.

When we do correct, we must keep in mind that it is demoralizing to correct every single mistake students make, so teachers have to be selective in what they correct. Ideally, teachers should correct whenever they feel the student writer is committing what Canagarajah calls a “mistake”i.e., unwittingly failing to express something in the best possible way, when expressing that thing is important to the student. Because expressing that message is important to the student, correcting the form increases the chances that the student will pay attention towill care, and learn fromthe correction, whether it is grammatical, lexical, phonological, etc. For example, in the same essay, Buthainah had inconsistent orthography: “ma sha allah,” “Masha Allah,” “ma sha allah” (p. 22). Yet this phrase was very important to her, so Canagarajah informed her that she was spelling it inconsistently (which she hadn’t realized). She was thus prompted to write it consistently as “Ma Sha Allah.”

In contrast, it is more up to the student to correct what Canagarajah calls “errors”i.e., when the student does something in a “nonstandard” way on purpose, but doesn’t get the audience reaction they were hoping for. In a good example of this, not from Canagarajah’s article but from a workshop on error correction by Lourdes Ortega (2021), a teacher corrected a student who said, “I came from Korea,” by saying that it was more natural to say, “I come from Korea.” Indeed, the student had conscientiously chosen to say “came” because s/he didn’t identify with Korea anymore and wanted to say that s/he “came” from his/her adopted country instead. In this case, Ortega argued that the teacher could point out to the student that others would not necessarily understand this fact out of context, and only hear an error. It might be better to say, “I originally came from Korea” (the teacher can suggest that the student add “originally” to his/her preferred phrase). That is, as teachers, we need to correct to help students better express what we figure out is their intended meaning, not ours.

Canagarajah’s example of an error was in Buthainah’s use of emoticons in her essay. She used them on purpose to make emotional appeals, but her classmates felt unmoved, and Canagarajah found the emoticons rather trivial himself. In contrast, what did work to elicit emotions was Buthaina’s use of Arabic script. She used this to make the reader experience how she felt as a student who could only understand some parts of English texts, and had to figure out the parts she didn’t get based on context (if that was even possible). While one classmate simply saw the Arabic as “beautiful” and “alien,” “a move that distances me from Buthainah but also leaves me intrigued” (Canagarajah, 2011a, p. 409), another classmate understood her better:

By not translating you are excluding a wider audience, your non-Arabic speaking audience from being able to engage fully with the text. Perhaps you are challenging them to bridge that gap as readers. That if they want to gain access to your writing (to a piece of you, perhaps?) they have to meet you halfway somehow. Or, maybe these poems are a special treat you mean only for those able to read Arabic to experience. (pp. 409-410)

Such intentional breaking of rules, which got the intended effect (at least on the second classmate), can be called code-meshing. Here is a chart that compares code-meshing with mistakes and errors:

MistakeErrorCode-meshing
Was it intentional?NoYesYes
Did the audience react in the way the student intended?No NoYes (at least some of them got it)
What is the appropriate pedagogical response?Teacher suggests correction to help the student express his/their own message betterStudent has to be sensitive to self-adjust; teacher helps her/them develop this skillThis is a victory and should be collectively recognized as such
My understanding of mistakes, errors, and code-meshing

2. What code-meshing teaches us about the agency of multilingual/multidialectal writers

Canagarajah (2011a) discusses four main strategies Buthainah used to exercise her agency as a multilingual writerthat is, to ensure that her multilingual academic paper was well received and more than adequately understood by her peers and teacher, none of whom had a linguistic repertoire that overlapped 100% with hers:

  1. Recontextualization strategies—framing the text so that people are likely not to think “informal,” “uneducated,” etc. when they read the “nonstandard” features but “creative,” legitimate,” etc. For example, she wrote: “At that time, my dear reader, I have not learned English in school yet since English was required to seventh graders and beyond; and I was in sixth grade. ☺ A ket-koot is a small chick in Arabic. At that time I had about seven chicks.” Here, she lays out that readers have to adjust their expectations since she did not learn English until middle school; a kind/smiley face is included as an appeal; Arabic words (in both Latin and Arabic scripts) are shared with readers through the essay to help them realize that she also has linguistic/cultural knowledge that they do not.
  2. Voice strategies—related to recontextualization, making it clear that she wants to speak/write in her own voice. “Although some people assume that ‘excellence’ is associated with writing like a ‘native,’ I strongly disagree with such belief. Who is a native speaker anyway? And why should a second language English writer have to mimic ‘native'”? (as cited in Canagarajah, 2011a, p. 407).
  3. Interactional strategies—for bits of language that not all people would understand, throwing the reader an aid to understanding in the form of contextualization clues. For example:

If you can’t read Arabic, can you figure out what the Arabic script means from the clues provided?

4. Texualization strategies—approaching the writing as a series of choices to make, not as an exercise in avoiding mistakes. As she realized that people did not always take her writing in the way she thought it would be taken (see the discussion of “errors” vs “mistakes” above), Buthainah became more intentional in her writing: “The collaborative aspect helped in shaping the final product. Questions that I was not sure about were somewhat answered after the discussion on my paper. My style was either supported (keep the poems) or criticized (not talking about the college experience). And all of that helped [me see] my writing as a reader may see in the final produc[t]” (Interview, Canagarajah, 2011a, p. 412).

Summary

Code-meshing supporters see the teaching of academic writing as social and relational. There are teachers who argue that “standard” English is most appropriate for academic writing, assuming that the social context for academic writing is homogeneous and static, rather than diverse and ever-changing. Yet Young (2013, pp. 144-145) reminds us:

When we operate as if it’s a fact that standard English is what all professionals and academics use, we ignore the real fact that not all successful professionals and academics write in standard English. We ignore the many examples of effective formal writing composed in accents, in varieties of English other than what’s considered standard. … In view of the foregoing, I continue to believe that the time is now to teach and learn code-meshing. It seems only right that we at least try. So, as has become my mantra and urging, keep code-meshing, keep code-meshing

References

Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). Critical academic writing and multilingual students. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Kotlowitz, A. (1992). There are no children here: The story of two boys growing up in the other America. New York, NY: Doubleday.

McNamara, T. (2011). Multilingualism in education: A poststructuralist critique. The Modern Language Journal, 95(3), 430-441. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01205.x

Ortega, L. (2021, Jan. 6). A multilingual ethos for error correction in additional language pedagogy. Hong Kong SAR: HKCPD Conference.

Smitherman, G. (2003). The historical struggle for language rights in CCCC. In G. Smitherman & V. Villaneuava (Eds.), From intention to practice: Considerations of language diversity in the classroom (pp. 7–39). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Young, V. A. (2013). Keep code-meshing. In A. S. Canagarajah (Ed.), Literacy as translingual practice: Between communities and classrooms (pp. 139-45). Abingdon, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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