Sociolinguistic Factors Influencing English Language Learning

Sociolinguistic Factors Influencing English Language Learning

Jon Bakos (Indiana State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch017


This chapter examines processes of language variation and change that take place in all languages, with a focus on English. Sociolinguists have observed that demographic and social variables such as where someone is born, their age, gender, and socio-economic status can be relevant to how they speak. However, contemporary work indicates that there is more to how someone speaks than a few checkboxes on a survey. Who does a speaker feel empathy with and want to emulate? How does a multi-faceted sense of personal identity affect how a person speaks? How might a second language (L2) learner's sense of belonging affect their own realization of English? These are some of the questions that this chapter seeks to address.
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What Is Sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is defined as the study of the relationship between language and society. Coulmas (2013, p. 11) claims that “the principal task of Sociolinguistics is to uncover, describe and interpret the socially motivated” choices an individual makes. This inquiry can take many forms, including ethnography, the acoustic examination of dialect features, and pragmatic study of norms, styles, and social dynamics within and between groups.

Sociolinguistics has many areas of interest. One central tenet of language is that for every aspect of it that has been discussed in this book, those elements will undergo variation and change over time. No parts of language are static, and throughout its existence, virtually every part of English has been revised and updated. Phonetically, sounds such as the velar fricative /x/ have been lost, and the entire system of English vowel pronunciation has adjusted through the Great Vowel Shift. Morphologically, English has lost the distinction between strong and weak nouns (as well as most of its case system). Even syntactic variation is possible, with many varieties of Appalachian English allowing double modal forms (“I might could do it.”), despite syntactic rules expressly saying that this should not be possible. Changes in language over time and variations between groups have consistently confounded prescriptivists and grammarians, with one of the first known examples by Gerald of Wales, cited in Bailey (1991, p. 19):

…in the southern parts of England … the speech is nowadays purer than elsewhere. It may be that it retains more of the features of the original language and the old ways of speaking English, whereas the northern regions have been greatly corrupted by the Danish and Norwegian invasions (Gerald of Wales, 1193 [1984]:231).

And yet, despite over 800 years of intervening time since Gerald’s complaints over the ailing state of the language, English has soldiered on, continuing to evolve and bifurcate considerably. With the knowledge that variation is inevitable and constant, sociolinguistics thus aims to better understand and describe such changes as best as possible. Further, as English and other languages have grown to have multiple varieties, dialects, and accents, it is vital to observe that these are not simply questions of pronunciation and word formation – an individual’s personal identity and sense of self can be connected to their use of dialect. A common stereotype in the United States is that of “Southern hospitality”- that residents of the Southern states are friendly, warm, and inviting. But this can also carry over to a Southern accent itself – simply speaking in this manner can signal someone as friendly, warm, and inviting, even if they are nothing of the sort! This can mean that dialect perceptions and dialect usage can both be a strong part of performing personal identity – directly connecting to someone’s mental self-representation.

The chapter will begin by considering isolated variables that have been shown to be relevant in sociolinguistic research, and then focus on a few particular studies that have demonstrated a greater complexity and interconnectedness of factors relating to one’s dialect and sense of self. The Labov and Eckert studies are two more groundbreaking works of the 20th Century, while the examination of forms of like and of language use by immigrant communities shows more contemporary research that may be more directly relevant to the concerns of L2 English speakers.



Where you are from can often be a key factor in how you speak, and this is true the world over. Historically, there have been two elements involved in making groups of people speak differently from one another – isolation and time. Before automobiles and planes, natural barriers such as mountain ranges and bodies of water could effectively separate cities and countries from one another, cutting off communication. Over the course of centuries of separation, even groups that spoke the same language would begin to drift apart linguistically, adapting local norms and customs that were distinct from others. With limited contact from outsiders, dialects and language forms would not mix, and gradually come to have less and less in common with each other. Sometimes the crucial boundaries can be surprising – for example, Sibata (1969) found that decades-old school district boundaries in Japan were having an effect on modern dialect distribution.

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