Sociolinguistics vs. normal people

(Alison)

We’re off to a great start this term. As I wrote in my opening post, I will be an occasional contributor to this blog. While I’d like the blog to be primarily a space for students to share their ideas, I do read all the posts and reading gets me thinking. And thinking gets me writing.

In the first class, I asked the group to write their personal language biographies, taking into account all aspects of their linguistic repertoires (with whom and when do they use particular linguistic resources). If you’ve been following along with the blog, you’ll see that some of the students have developed the in-class activity into blog posts.

(As an aside: I am starting to realize how busy this blog is going to keep me – there are 38 students in the group and they are each expected to write a minimum of 3 posts during the semester. You do the math, but that’s a lot of blog posts! But, I am very lucky because I get to read them all.)

I’d like to share some reflections on what has been posted so far. First, some themes I’ve noticed:

accent – noticing, changing, losing, gaining

identity – changing, becoming, challenging, noticing

place – staying, traveling, studying, living

culture – sharing, including, excluding, belonging

language – maintaining, learning, teaching, defining

I’ve also noticed some words:

native speaker

standard

dialect

L1 / L2

In these words, at times, I see a stance on language and language learning that mirrors how most normal people think about language. Like Van Herk (2012), whose textbook we’re using, I’d like to draw attention to difference between how (socio)linguists and normal people think about language (here’s an earlier blog post I wrote about this same distinction). This is important because everyone (linguists and normal people alike) has an opinion on language – which ones are good and prestigious, which ones are easier to learn, which ones should be taught. Normal people tend to think of a language with respect to how standard (real, pure, prestigious) it is. This positions anything less than that as non-standard (broken, limited, devalued). Normal people tend to think of these differences as linguistic fact. Sociolinguists research has exposed that these “facts” are socially constructed value judgements and that, from a purely linguistic standpoint, all language varieties are equally as systematic and rule-driven.

Sociolinguists, rather than searching for evidence to support an understanding of linguistic facts, are interested in describing what people are doing with language. While I don’t expect everyone in the course to become a sociolinguist (even though sociolinguists are pretty cool), I do expect that everyone will be open to playing with and trying on sociolinguistically-informed ways of understanding words like language, dialect, L1, L2, and native speaker.

I won’t say more for now, but I have no doubt that these are themes and words that will surface and resurface throughout the course and in this blog.

For now, I should stop writing because there are probably several student blog posts to read and publish (trying to keep up…).

 

Reference

Van Herk, Gerard (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

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Author: Alison Crump

Academic Projects Manager, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University. PhD Educational Studies. Interested in: sociolinguistics, multilingualism, language policy, higher education, academic writing.

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