Cultural Gumbo – The Code Switch

I was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) by an immigrant, single mother. The storyline in

“Fresh off the Boat” is very familiar to me. If the USA is a melting pot, New Orleans is the gumbo

created in that pot. There are so many cultures, beautifully woven together, in that great city –

she is French Creole with Spanish influences, Irish/African speech patterns, and Haitian spiritual

undertones. During my upbringing, NOLA was predominately Black (demographically). I grew

upon a block that was Irish Catholic, in a home that was “Honduras once you cross the threshold”

  • as my mother constantly reminded my siblings and I.


Navigating customs and etiquette cross-culturally was the norm for New Orleanians. There was

a way of speaking with friends outside that was different than how I communicated at school,

and absolutely unacceptable inside our home. This made me feel like I didn’t quite fit, like I was

an outsider.


Our vocal sounds are created by vibration. Patterns in our vibration, fluctuations, tones, volume,

staggering, all communicate a message to those we hope to have verbal engagement. I

have had many reminders over the years of the importance of using the “correct” speech

patterns for the audience being addressed. Using a low register “Hey, what’s up” might be too

intense or considered “intimidating” in some circles while a high pitched “Hey, what’s up” that

ends with an upward inflection might sound “corny” in the circles I grew up in. As a young

girl/teen, when I visited family in NOLA or when we traveled to visit family in Honduras, my

speech naturally adjusted to match theirs.


Later, I joined the military and had to learn to code-switch (change my language to fit the environment) to be understood within the military ranks – I’d actually been doing this since childhood but not with conscious intent. Over the years, I’ve lived in Texas, Arizona, Florida, and now Colorado. I’ve traveled throughout the USA, Mexico, Honduras, and Brazil. I pick up accents wherever I go. I don’t have a true identity vocally. How I speak, and what language/dialect I use depends on where I am and who I’m with.


If I really think about it, I probably feel most relaxed speaking in “NOLA talk,” as my kids have

nicknamed it, but most content with the lilt of the Afro-Hondurans. I definitely feel a lot of stress

speaking in the standard American accent (think news anchor) which I use most often – in public

speaking, working with my patients, networking events. When I was completing my graduate

and postgraduate studies, I became physically and mentally tired of talking because I was trying

to maintain the speech patterns of my peers. My mouth would become exhausted and I’d find

myself mispronouncing words. Not only was I stressed, but I experienced some level of anxiety

whenever I knew I’d have to stand up and speak in class, or have group discussions.

I read a 2006 article in the International Journal of Bilingualism that showed the stress of being bilingual compounded by having a taxing workload can increase stress. Social support like encouragement from

peers, or material support such as informative literature can help reduce the impact of stress.

Reading and sharing stories in an international magazine that celebrates multiculturalism,

nomadic lifestyles, and diversity definitely qualifies as a social support for coping with stress.


Welcome to Culturs Magazine!


Dr. Rhonda M. Coleman, DAOM is a multilingual, code-switching, culturally Honduran, woman of Black African descent. She is the founder and director of The Healing Garden, a center for holistic health education grounded in African ancestral healing practices. Coleman is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, and a teacher of the Afro-Brazilian martial-art of Capoeira. She lives in Colrado with her husband and three children.



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