Sounds like a pretty academic word, right?
But the truth is, the field of sociolinguistics is a pretty interesting subject. Plus, it can be a nice thing for language learners to know about it.
An Introduction to Sociolinguistics for the Language Learner
When we study languages, we often focus on the language itself. The grammar, the vocabulary, the pronunciation, and so on. Sociolinguistics, however, give you the chance to look at the context within which the language is spoken rather than the mechanics of the language itself.
Why does context matter?
Ultimately, if you are learning the language with the aim of using it, then it’s worth considering the place(s) and culture(s) tied to the language. You can learn so much about the language that you’re learning by looking past it to the things that it’s attached to.
So much of actual communication goes beyond just words and grammar, and without considering communication in its entirety, you’ll never really be “fluent” in another language.
Every language is used in different contexts, by different people, and for different reasons. and when learning a language, it is important to consider these factors in order to be able effectively communicate in them. And effective communication is, presumably, the ultimate goal for many learners.
What reason is there to learn another language if you don’t intend to use it in some way, shape or form?
Language and Its Relationship with Culture
In essence, the study of language and its relationship to culture and to society is known as sociolinguistics.* Although it may sound like an intimidating term that belongs to the academic realm (as I mentioned earlier), every language learner should have some awareness of sociolinguistics. Even if it’s just understanding what it is without actually knowing the term for it.
Because language, in many ways, is a social concept.
Language grew out the human need to communicate and interact. Understanding that it is social by nature, allows you to more effective use your language.
Linguistic Anthropology: A Brief History of Sociolinguistics
During the nineteenth century, the social aspects of language were first studied under the guise of “linguistic anthropology.” In the 1930s, it was a popular field amongst Indian and Japanese linguists, as well as by the Swiss Louis Gauchat in the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that William Labov in the US and Basil Bernstein in the UK pioneered the way for Western sociolinguists to make their appearance on the scene.
Historically, much like in the field of anthropology, the more “exotic” cultures and languages were of primary interest to sociolinguists while “home” or Western languages remained largely unexplored and ignored. Thankfully, this practice is changing and materials on and studies of Western languages are becoming more commonplace.
Sociolinguistics focus on the social spaces that languages occupy – a topic that the field of linguistics typically kept in the background. 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. A few examples would be:
- Studying the differences between the ways men and women speak
- How teens or children speak
- How different social classes communicate
- Dialects and how they influence one another
Approaches to Studying Sociolinguistics
Theoretically, there are two different approaches to the study of language and how it relates to society. The first is known as the sociology of language. This is the study of the effect that society has on language. The second is sociology or the study of the effect that 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. In result, it is nearly impossible to study one without learning about the other.
In fact, linguist Dell Hymes, even goes so far as to argue that the two are not different. They are only one field of study.
Let’s look at an example of just who intertwined these two fields are. The development of computer vocabulary by the Académie Française illustrates this beautifully. And yes, you read that right – development.
With the technology boom, English words for computer-related items began to infiltrate the French language. The Académie Française, in an attempt to prevent the Anglicization of the French language, sought to create French equivalents.
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 particular 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 (or even courier électronique). In music especially, English words are popular even when French terms exist. An example is that le beatbox is used when la boîte à voix humaine exists.
Why do sociolinguistics matter for the average language learner?
Sociolinguistics is all about context. What goes on beyond the language when it is used. Being unaware of social courtesies (which are 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 with an Italian, it might be considered rude and aggressive. And it might not be a very good way to make friends.
Mistakes of this sort, according to David Broersma, can lead to people not only thinking you are ignorant of their culture but even “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. All the more reason you should improve and develop your sociolinguistic skills. They can be an important facet of your language learning experience.
How Do You Develop Your Own Sociolinguistic Skill Set?
There are several ways to develop your own 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 and aim to incorporate a few of them into the way you speak and interact with your target language.
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 to your communication style at the next opportunity.
As a language learner, it is your job to play “detective”. 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 reading on Sociolinguistics:
Hudson, Richard A. Sociolinguistics.
Hymes, Dell. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach (Conduct and Communication).
*Hymes, Dell. Sociolinguistics and the Ethnography of Speaking.
Sociolinguistics are also known 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.