An Introduction Sociolinguistics and its Importance in Language Learning

Shannon KennedyShannon Kennedy’s blog, Eurolinguiste, is one of those diamonds that you find by accident, but are glad you did.  After I stumbled upon her blog, I followed and added it to my side bar of blogs I recommend you follow.  When I asked Shannon to write a guest post, she mentioned that her expertise was in sociolinguistics.  That sounded so interesting to me that I asked her to write about that.  Though the concept may sound very academic, it is a very practical concept that all of us language learners should apply.  So with out further ado, take it away Shannon:
When learning a new language, it is often only the language itself that is looked at and studied rather than the context in which the language belongs. Ultimately, if you are learning the language to use it, then the appropriate place(s) and culture(s) of the language should be taken into consideration in addition to the language itself. So much of actual communication is beyond knowing just words and grammar, and without considering communication in its entirety, you’ll never really be “fluent” in another language. Each language is used within different contexts, by different people and for different reasons and when learning a language, it is important to consider those factors to effectively communicate with others, which is presumably the ultimate goal. What reason is there to learn another language if you do not have the intention to use it?
In essence, the study of language and its relationship with culture and society is known as sociolinguistics.* Although it may sound like an intimidating term that belongs in the academic realm, every language learner should have some awareness of sociolinguistics, particularly because the very act of using a language is, in fact, social. Language was developed out of the need to communicate and interact, and therefore, it is social by nature, and understanding some part of that allows us to more effectively use the language.
During the nineteenth century, the social aspects of language were first studied under the guise of “linguistic anthropology.” Later, in the 1930s, it was a popular subject amongst Indian and Japanese linguists, as well as by Gauchat in Switzerland in the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Western sociolinguists began to appear on the scene, pioneered by William Labov in the US and Basil Bernstein in the UK. Historically, much like anthropology, the more exotic cultures and languages were of primary interest to sociolinguists while “home” or Western languages remained unexplored and ignored. Thankfully, this practice has been changing and materials and studies available on Western languages are becoming more commonplace.
Sociolinguistics take up the social space in the study of language on topics that linguistics usually keep in the background. In short, sociolinguistics would differentiate Canadian French from France French or even different dialects within the French nation (as well as different languages) and how they influence one another. In other words, it is the effort to understand the way that social dynamics are affected by individual and/or group language use, variations in language and varying attitudes towards language. Additional examples include the differences between the ways men and women speak, the ways children or teens speak, or even the way different social classes communicate.
There are theoretically two different approaches to the study of language and how it relates to society. The first is the sociology of language, or the study of the effect society has on language. The second is sociology or the study of the effect language has on society. Although the two are considered fundamentally different, various field work and studies have demonstrated they are inseparable. Culture and language constantly influence one another and in result, studying one is nearly impossible to do without learning about the other. In fact, the linguist, Hymes, argues that the two are not different, but one field of study and that sociolinguistics is merely a popular “one-word” relative to the multiple word descriptions that existed prior to the second world war including “sociology of language”.
An example of how these two studies are intertwined is illustrated by the development of computer vocabulary by the Académie Française. When English words for computer related items began to infiltrate the French language, the Académie sought to create French equivalents to keep the language “pure” and prevent the Anglicization of the French language. So, in this one simple case, you see how the relationship works on both ends of the spectrum – language affecting society and society affecting language. When one pushes the other, it gets pushed back in an almost endless tug-of-war type fashion. In this case, the Académie’s efforts have seen mixed success and many English words are still prevalent in conversation: Walkman, mastering and Email are still used despite the existence of baladeur, masterisation, and courriel. In music especially, English words are popular even when French terms exist, for example le beatbox is used when la boîte à voix humaine exists

Why are sociolinguistics important to the average language learner?

Being unaware of social courtesies (or aspects of sociolinguistics) can lead to embarrassing situations as a language learner. For example, did you know that pointing (even at an object and not at a person) is considered extremely rude in Italy? In the US, pointing is considered acceptable unless we are pointing at a person – we point at items on menus, at objects in display windows and in directions. If an American learning Italian were to point during communication, it would be considered rude and aggressive and isn’t a very good way to make friends. Making a mistake of this sort, according to David Broersma can lead people to not only think that one is ignorant, but “ill mannered, dishonest, insincere, rude, pushy, etc.” The most intimidating part is, the better you are at speaking, the more severely you are judged in total communication, and all the more reason you have to improve and develop your sociolinguistic skills as an important facet of your language learning experience.

So how do I develop my own sociolinguistic skill set?

There are several ways to develop a sociolinguistic skill set. The first is through observation. Although I wrote a post on how I didn’t think television was a good way to learn to speak a language, I do think it is a good way to learn about how to communicate (as long as you take away the realistic scenarios in film and not the unrealistic ones). As you watch films and television or read books, make mental notes on body language, gestures and tone. Keep a notebook with your questions and discoveries.
While you continue to grow as a language learner, establish relationships with native speakers. Be aware of the ways in which they communicate and don’t be afraid to ask questions! It is important to inquire about things such as, “Can I say this to a man (as a man or woman)? Can I say this to a friend? An elder?” Be aware of the fact that in many cultures, there is a distinction between the way one would speak to a man or a woman and this is not only influenced by the gender of the audience, but that of the speaker too. Listen to their feedback and try to adapt it into your communication style at the next opportunity.
As a language learner, it is your job to play “detective” and to be determined to learn how interaction takes place in each and every communication situation so that you will be prepared when you find yourself in those very situations.

Some additional information on Sociolinguistics:

Hudson, Richard A. Sociolinguistics.
Sociolinguistics are also know as psycholinguistics and ethnolinguistics. The term depends on the field of the researcher; sociolinguistics is the term that connects linguistics with sociology while ethnolinguistics relates to anthropology and psycholinguistics to psychology. The three terms are essentially synonymous

7 Comments

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7 responses to “An Introduction Sociolinguistics and its Importance in Language Learning

  1. Thanks again! I really enjoyed writing this post.

  2. Such an interesting post Shannon. When learning English, I have always been interested in how different groups use the same language in a different manners. I never knew about sociolinguistics though🙂
    Sounds like something I might explore more in the future since I always had a keen interest in both Sociology and languages

  3. George

    That is a very interesting intro to sociolinguistics. I like that.

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