The first time someone told me I wasn’t speaking properly, I was 13 years old, and knee deep in hot, steamy water. My high school was having its Wednesday morning swimming classes at a local pool. How many minutes until the bus comes, my instructor asked. I said, “I fink five?”
“You think?” he responded, “Or you fink?”
The question came as a surprise. No one had pulled me up on my pronunciation at home, a suburb 24 kilometres west of this pool. Until that moment, I didn’t even know I had an accent or trouble with enunciation—but now, as it became clear that I did, I felt exposed and ashamed. It takes a storm to capsize a boat, but it took just the laughter of my classmates for me to sink deeper into that pool, until the water touched the bottom of my chin.
We aren’t taught to speak in the same way we are taught to read and write. Spoken ‘errors’ usually aren’t corrected, especially not if your teachers or family or friends speak the same way as you. For many people who grew up in the West, the realisation we are speaking the ‘wrong’ way is unexpected. I learned late, but some students who have been educated in Western Sydney their whole lives learn even later.
‘Westies’ who undertake tertiary education at the University of Sydney (USyd) encounter lots of transitional difficulties: the long commute, the demographic change, the bad ethnic food. But perhaps the most underexplored aspect of their change is code switching, the practice of changing language according to the audience.
We subtly code switch all the time. The way we talk to our family is different from our boss, for example. But for USyd students from Western Sydney, code switching can begin to demarcate parts of their lives.
Victor Ye, an undergrad from Casula, has studied economics at USyd for three years. He went to an unremarkable public school in southwest Sydney, and he receives Youth Allowance from Centrelink. This kind of upbringing is not unusual for Victor—most of his friends at home have a similar story. But the same cannot be said for many of his peers in finance, who either come from academically successful schools, or can rely entirely on their parents for constant financial support.
“I personally change my way of speaking to [fit in] with them,” he confides. When Victor is at USyd, his accent is smooth: he takes care to enunciate every word, and exaggerates the rises and falls in his voice. But in his one-storey house in Casula, where he lives with his immigrant parents and his younger sister, the facade is gone. “I am much more crass and rude with my word usage in the West. At USyd, I’m … just polite.”
“People [at USyd] are a lot more uptight and sensitive than the West with regards to language,” Victor says. He argues the culture at USyd, particularly what he perceives as the student body’s monolithic identities—the same suburbs, schools, or family background—creates clear lines between what is understood as right and wrong in terms of speech.
Victor identifies that the pressure on speech patterns primarily functions on a social level, as does another interviewee who claims to avoid using ‘bro’ and ‘cuz’ to avoid being potentially socially isolated. These are not rogue word choices, nor are they particularly ‘rude’, but they do compromise a vernacular that is often lost on students on this campus.
“I don’t want to seem uneducated but that’s how I seem if I speak like that,” says the interviewee, who wished to remain anonymous. “It doesn’t matter if my parents are CEOs raking in cash—I’ll still sound like a dumb Western Sydney kid. And no one who isn’t from Western Sydney wants to be friends with someone like that.”
The fear of ridicule and isolation is just one reason to code switch. An equally motivating, or perhaps larger, factor is the fear of being misunderstood: fear that our word choice and syntax could be perceived incorrectly when divorced from its context—when our listeners aren’t familiar with our ‘code’.
“The way I speak, unironically, is what they do when they’re sort of having fun imitating people from my area,” says X, a business major. X is a non-practising Muslim who lives in Lakemba, a suburb 15km southwest of the CBD. Searching ‘Lakemba’ on Google turns up articles on crime rates, anti-terror raids and a ‘crudely Islamified’ mannequin.
“My friends at USyd went through a phase of saying ‘say wallah’. It was really weird. I knew if I said it, they wouldn’t really get it,” X says.
It’s a disconnect many students from the West can empathise with: to have our vernacular, accent or word choice become the punchline of a playground joke. It creates a sense of unease, like someone wedging themselves into a private conversation. It is easier to code switch than to feel self-conscious. But this does not come with no consequence.
Although these students don’t ‘intend’ to code switch—at least in the sense that they do not mean to be deliberately deceiving—many identify being ‘called out’ by other ‘Westies’ for speaking differently at USyd.
Abbey Lenton, a fourth year media and communications student, is from Greenfield Park, a suburb close to the city of Fairfield. She chose to attend USyd in year nine, despite the advice of her teachers, and does not think her speech patterns have changed, although others certainly do.
“My friends from the west tell me that I think I’m posh now. That I speak slower and with more purpose. I think I’m just getting older and more confident. It sincerely bums me out that something I’m proud of makes my friends from home think I’m up my own ass.”
Victor, who is more forthright about his code switching, still claims it does not operate as consciously or strategically as it may sound. “I ran into a high school friend while on the train with my close uni friends. They claimed the way I spoke […] was suddenly totally different to how I would engage in conversation with them or anyone on campus. I was completely oblivious to this.”
“I just thought I was being genuine [when speaking to my high school friend],” says Victor.
Code switching concerns the way we speak. But really, the problems Western Sydney students face regarding expectations of language do not end at how we speak, but also what we communicate. Topics that would resonate well with a Western Sydney audience risk being ill-perceived by the general USyd student population.
“Because the West is a melting pot of every type of person, nothing’s off the table,”Abbey said. “USyd’s not like that.”
“I remember chatting to new friends about the day of our Drama HSC. I said something like, ‘Yeah, someone got stabbed before in the park next to my school, so it was a super tense day’. They did not like that one bit.”
Victor’s clique in Casula give each other nicknames that are, to be blunt, pretty socially unacceptable.
“I was called Ching Lee,” Victor adds. He is a man of Chinese heritage, but slurs do not bother him if they come from other ‘Westies’. It would be different if they came from someone on King street.
It’s risky to over-intellectualise, but perhaps the West, because it is so diverse, can unite around a shared experience of the stereotypes the elite thrusts on them. A sense of unity that is unavailable on campus.
“Whenever I run into someone from the West, I immediately ‘code switch’ to communicate with them. I feel we have a shared experience predicated on ignorance [on everything about USyd],” Victor says.
“USyd knows nothing about the West and the West hates them for it,” Abbey says. “I’ve always been very forthcoming about being from the West, but there were certainly parts I would keep on the low. People would tell me they spent their summers […] in Europe. I had no idea how to tell them I spent mine in a caravan park.”
Students from Western Sydney head eastwards for a ‘better’ education and more opportunities. Abbey identified an attraction to USyd’s prestige. “To me, USyd represented this vision of my future that was cosmopolitan and fabulous—unrealistic yes, but a 14 year old girl can dream.” Victor was the same, “the prestige and reputation [attracted me]. UWS is a bit a joke [to people].”
For a lot of these students coming from underfunded public schools, sitting in sandstone buildings can feel like the pinnacle of education.
But a large part of the lessons learnt are unconscious—behaviours forced onto them by stereotypes of class and geography. Through code switching and other social techniques, ‘Westies’ learn how to be ‘presentable’ to their peers—but it’s not easy to compartmentalise your life.
A shorter version of this article appeared in print.