Sociolinguistics 101

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Socio-what?!! That is the usual response I get when I tell people something about what really gets my heart beating faster. It is no secret I love languages. I’m a language teacher, studied English and have graduated in topics concerning linguistic topics. But liking languages is something that can occur at several levels, because languages are very complex. My personal preference lies with looking at what happens when languages are used by people to communicate. What factors influence the language(s) we speak? How do miscommunications happen? What happens when people interact in one-on-one conversations vs larger groups? These are some of the questions I find interesting and they are all covered in the field of sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics is literally the study of language and society combined. It focuses on how society influences language and vice versa. In a way, a person’s life story is reflected in the way they speak. Which accent you speak depends on where you grew up, which social class you belong to, what social groups you identify with and who you meet in life. There are differences in how people speak depending on whether they are higher or lower class, how old they are, whether they are a man or a woman and how well-educated they are. In a way, all a person needs to do is open their mouths and you can make out how they view themselves and the world around them.

Of course it is not this black and white, but that is what it boils down to. Some examples. If you grow up speaking a language where you have more words to refer to the color blue, you also are capable of identifying more types of blue. When you go to school and end up gaining a college degree, you are more likely to speak with a close to standard accent than when you don’t. In addition, teenagers speak differently from their parents because they are in search of their own identity and people who fail to write Facebook statuses according to grammar and spelling rules are very capable of writing good letters of application, because they associate one context with proper language use and one simply not.

And these are all mighty fascinating to me. And then some! I personally have dabbled into several branches of sociolinguistics and am still going strong. I have written dissertations on what accent Dutch people think is acceptable when they speak English and how to deal with English when teaching it. Currently I am studying how Facebook can be used for educational purposes and before you think that isn’t very sociolinguistic of me let me tell you this: everything you do on Facebook can be analyzed from a sociolinguistic viewpoint. For one, the way you fill in your profile and use your account says something about you as a person and additionally what you write and how you write it, what you like and when you comment again implies something about you: your identity and your stance towards life in general.

The beauty of sociolinguistics is that it is everywhere! Everywhere where language is used and since we use language the minute we try to communicate anything, it is around us in abundance. I can be on a train and hear someone behind me pick up the phone in Dutch then switch to Turkish/ Sranan/ whichever language and be thrilled. Unbeknownst to themselves these people just codeswitched which is sociolinguistics. I can write a blog and make a grammatical mistake and have someone respond calling me out on my mistake. These ‘grammar nazis’ and their normative behavior are again doing something very interesting from a sociolinguistic standpoint. Because linguistically speaking there is no right or wrong language. If it exists, if people can produce it, it’s language and it’s correct. Tell that to any English teacher though and they’ll go red in the face and try to punch you.

Right or wrong language only exists on paper: it’s a social construct and thus people who get their panties up in a bunch over a typo in your Facebook status aren’t wrong. It has been agreed on, at a social level, that there is such a thing as correctness and a ‘standard’ language that we should all speak. But it’s the deviations, the parts and people who differ, who are interesting to someone like me. In face, I am interesting to myself. Having grown up in the South of The Netherlands, I still have a noticeable Southern accent when I speak Dutch, but when I go back home I apparently have problems picking up the local dialect which I used to speak as a kid. Oh and not to mention the fact that I have an American accent when I speak English or what about this blog being in English?

I know that at least the latter bit has puzzled people. If she’s Dutch, why is this blog in English? See, I could explain this to you, but that would make a completely new blog post. So I’ll save that for some other time. For now just know: it’s easier and Internet, to me at least, = English.

Had you ever heard of sociolinguistics before? And just because I’m curious: do you speak any accents/ dialects/ other languages and how well-versed are you in them?

One response to “Sociolinguistics 101”

  1. AWildDog Avatar

    Erm yes, but only because of you!
    I’m told I speak with an accent but I obviously don’t hear it. My accent is “Potteries” and there is a whole dialect that goes with it but that is dying out. Though I will still call people “duck” and I say “Up town” and “down the park” rather than “to x-place”. I don’t know if you’ve picked up on that or not.
    I can speak some of the old dialect but it’s very thick and hard for others to understand, so we hardly use it. I only remember some because my grandparents used to speak it.

    As for other Languages… well I studied German at school for 5 years, I’m pretty rubbish at it to be honest, I can only remember a few phases. And a few friends came over and taught me some totally useless Dutch things like “Lul” and “Neurken in de Keurken”. :\

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