Sociolinguistic noticing for language learners

By Melissa J. Enns

Have you ever noticed how effortlessly you switch registers in your first language? Have you ever wondered why it’s easy for you to identify where a character in a story or movie is from based on the way she speaks? Probably not, because mostly, you just know.

It may be easy for you, but second language learners are often at a disadvantage in picking up on these subtleties, and this can be socially and academically problematic. Van Herk (2012) states that “although teachers are aware of the stylistic range that their students might need, their own language ideologies or limited teaching time lead them to focus on the standard end of language” (183). While I agree with his statement, I dislike the truth of it. As teachers, we (hopefully) strive to meet students’ linguistic needs to the very best of our abilities, but failing to give them the tools of sociolinguistic evaluation leaves them disadvantaged socially and academically. Please allow me to explain.

The school where I worked prior to coming to McGill is an academic prep school with an ESL program aimed at equipping students to succeed in high school and university classes with (ultimately) little or no language help. Unsurprisingly, there is an emphasis on enlarging their academic vocabulary and helping them develop grammatical accuracy and self-correction skills. However, this focus can leave them inadequately prepared in two important ways.

First, ESL students at our school tend to have difficulties integrating socially with their English-speaking Canadian peers. While our ESL students, like, pick up some, like, features very quickly (see what I did there?), most of them largely lack the ability to understand and use the abundant non-standard and “slang” forms or the types of tonal and nonverbal cues that their peers use to index attitudes and guide conversation. Many Intermediate ESL students would not recognize that a peer saying, “Oh my gosh, I hate my hair” is an invitation for them either to express shock because the speaker’s hair is “like, so amazing” or to belittle some aspect of their own appearance.

Second, ESL students at my school generally struggle with the demands of using linguistic clues in literature to determine historical and social contexts. This is a great source of academic difficulty, since such analysis is a key skill in their high school English classes. Few can understand Mark Twain’s approximation of Midland/St. Louis dialects and vernaculars in Huckleberry Finn, much less use these to unlock contextual clues of place, time, and social issues of race and class. Thus, focusing on standard use of language leaves gaps in both students’ social and academic abilities.

I would like to suggest that small activities can be created to help fill in the gaps. As a personal practice, I make a point of exposing students to some of the types of non-standard language use they are likely to encounter, particularly in day-to-day colloquial English. Where appropriate, I will model different registers (especially “teen talk”) and dialects in my teaching. My students always love it, which makes me wonder if it could be taken a step further. Perhaps they could watch movie clips featuring speakers of different varieties of English. Then they could try to identify the ways in which the language they hear is different from the English they learn in grammar classes and consider what we can tell about the person’s background based on the language he uses and the ways he uses it. These activities could be incorporated into grammar or writing lessons and even be used as a launching pad for discussions of social issues. While this kind of activity would have to be undertaken carefully and respectfully, I believe that any amount of exposure to and reflection on language as it is used in literature and outside of the classroom would help to better equip learners for literary analysis and social interaction.

I would love feedback on this. Do you have any strategies for improving learners’ ability to perceive and understand the meaning of sociolinguistic clues?



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

4 thoughts on “Sociolinguistic noticing for language learners”

  1. Hi Melissa,
    I think you’re doing a great job with your students! I think you would find some resonances with the literature and work on language awareness – what tools, strategies, etc. can teachers use in the class to help their students gain a broader awareness of how language is used outside the class (including in books)? Here’s one idea I thought of as I was reading your post: creating a class newspaper (online or print). This would open up spaces for different genres of writing, and reporting/ reflecting on how language is used in many different places and by different people. There could be opportunities for peer feedback and increased awareness of sociolinguistic clues. Interested to hear others’ ideas too!


  2. Hey Melissa,

    I see what you’re saying here! Colloquial/non-formal language is so important! I’ve done something in my classes for low-intermediate to advanced level students in the past called ‘weird English’. Every few days I ask the class if they’ve heard any expressions/slang/vocab that they weren’t able to find the meaning of in a dictionary—’weird English’. Anything spoken on TV, movies, overheard on the bus, from their home stay families, etc. They share them with the class, I try to get them to guess from context, and then explain them if necessary. It’s often quite a fruitful activity, the students get into it, and sometimes I incorporate the expressions into the vocabulary they’re responsible for during the unit. (I’ve also been compiling them for my own use one day!). It engages them in the process of seeking out informal language outside of the classroom, and the whole class gets to benefit from their discoveries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melissa- Thank you to whomever shared that! 😉 We actually have a similar assignment for students at the high school where I work. When they are at the Advanced level of ESL, they have one-on-one sessions with a tutor every second day, and they are actually responsible to fill a certain portion of the time with their own questions about language as they’ve seen it in use. A lot of the time gets filled with discussion of the literature they come across in their English classes, but we also encourage them to pay attention to signs, movies, things they hear, and so on and ask us about that. As it is not obligatory, not all of them partake of that possibility; however, I believe that those who do get a lot out of it! I wonder if your doing it in a group setting makes it that much more engaging for them.


  3. Hi Melissa, I agree with you that sociolinguistic competence is unquestionably important. I wonder why it is not given much attention by curriculum designers since it can easily be incorporated in any skill that is taught to L2 learners. In Most L2 teaching settings, authentic materials are presumably vital, and (this includes dialect integration) could very well be part of it. Like Alison mentioned (to me after class), dialectal forms of the language could certainly be integrated into the syllabus. On the other side of the coin, there’s always the assumption (by the curriculum designers) that linguistic competence (namely, grammatical and lexical accuracy and communicative written and spoken fluency) is far more important than the sociolinguistic competence. Some may argue that sociolinguistic competence is acquired rather than taught, ignoring the communication breakdown that the students may encounter along the way, as a result.

    I like your suggestion of small activities. I strongly believe that an able language teacher is one who understands what the needs of his students are and, accordingly, tweak his teaching methods, i.e., improvise an eclectic approach so that new ideas and thoughts are brought into the classroom to suitably supplement what the curriculum lacks or unwittingly overlooks. In my classes, I always strive to break the monotonous rhythm of the curriculum by teaching other pertinent things alongside, such as teaching idiomatic expressions, thematic vocabulary, word-formation and usage, and so forth. Such additional activities always make coming to class fun and full of eagerness. I encourage you, hence, to do this as much and as appropriately as you possible could in your classes. Not only this makes your classes fun, but also popular among students as they deem them more beneficial and fully informative in terms of the amount of linguistic knowledge they acquire/learn in them. It is true that this requires a lot of planning and preparation, but it absolutely is worth it. Pedagogically speaking, I believe that even the most experienced and versatile teachers still need to plan and prepare to create an optimal and conducive learning environment.

    Liked by 1 person

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