As a student of linguistics, certain terms related to language have come to have particular meaning for me, and speak to who I am as a student and a professional. I’ve shared some of these below.
So many in this academic universe have had the experience of someone asking, “what IS sociolinguistics, anyways?” Sometimes this can be a more complex answer than we might like. However, I believe in the need to find an effective way to frame this field for the purpose of my own self-presentation. Merely describing sociolinguistics as the “interplay” or “entwining” of language and society, as I’ve often seen done, is not enough. Instead, I would want those working in communications, for example, to know that I have a deep knowledge of how language affects society (AND how society affects language), so that they can see that my ability to analyze language to get at this language-society relationship gives me an edge in crafting messages for the public on their behalf, and in being a successful voice for a company. Therefore to a colleague or employer in that realm who asks “what is sociolinguistics?” I might reply: sociolinguistics is the in-depth study of how language tells the story of us as a society over time, of how language resonates with us, and why.
In my time as a linguistics student, I have come to have a more nuanced view of what being “bilingual” really means. This term, while seemingly basic, is something that I believe has the potential to go well beyond a “nice to have” that appears on a resume. Professionally, it is important to me that I communicate that this term refers not only to an ability to communicate in two languages, but (in my case, and for many others), a familiarity with two cultures and two sets of linguistic norms, which can be highly useful to an organization, and can set a candidate apart in the job market. To be “bilingual” is often to also be “bicultural” — this could prove extremely beneficial in terms of the interpretive abilities it gives an individual, and of a broader or more unique world view it has the potential to afford. I am continually looking for ways in which I can capitalize on my own bilingualism as more than a basic “about me” bullet point, and to emphasize its value as part of my increasingly well-rounded personal arsenal of language-based skills and knowledge.
I have put together a brief annotated bibliography of literature that is useful to my professional and academic pursuits. Please click here to access it.
This is a term I like to be able to point to when expressing my personal relationship to linguistics. This term was first introduced to me when I had the privilege of studying with Professor Ralph Fasold, early in my time as a linguistics graduate student. As someone who has always taken note of people’s styles of speech, and who is fascinated by how we interact using words, I have long been aware that I tend to be an enthusiastic, fast-talking, and frequently-interrupting conversationalist. I came to believe that this was rude and intrusive and something I should work to stifle…even as I was sure that it was only out of excitement and a feeling of involvement that I spoke this way. Imagine my joy when I learned in Dr. Fasold’s class that overlapping, interruptions, and highly energetic back-and-forth in a conversation represented an actual style of speech known as “high-involvement,” and that speakers using this style are simply deeply engaged, interested, or passionate about the topic at hand, and even use this style as a way of bonding with the other speakers in a conversation. This resounded deeply with me, but also made me more attuned to the different impressions we get of — and project onto! — others’ ways of speaking and interacting. As such, I work to be attuned and aware when it comes to how I interact verbally, based on setting, participants, etc. This, I know, is something that will serve me well in the next steps of my career and in any workplace.
The relationality principle
Conceived of by Bucholtz and Hall (2005), the relationality principle is one of five principles outlined in “Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach” (Bucholtz and Hall, 2005). This principle in particular, the fourth in their list, “emphasizes identity as a relational phenomenon.” In other words, “relationality” draws attention to te fact that identities do not exist n a vacuum. They do not exist independent of one another. Instead, they take on meaning according to other identity positions and players. One can view identity as in contrast to others. Within this principle, the authors call out three specific types of relations: similarity/difference, genuineness/artifice, and authority/delegitimacy. In my own area(s) of interest – especially web content writing and public media – the relationality principle can be a useful way of analyzing news data to find patterns and to uncover new and revealing ways of reporting on information. For example (as Bucholtz and Hall remind us with their example of President Bush’s 2003 speech), public figures often put some of these relations to work in constructing their on identities (or in “othering” identities of those around them). Understanding these tactics can help someone working to bring the public informed and interesting content to break apart and analyze this information, making connections and finding patterns to ignite discussion and to make for a more informed public.
The concept of the “native speaker” is one that has been frequently debated in sociolinguistics and applied linguistics. Davies (2003, 2008) deals extensively with this issue, for instance, and proposes six ways to define native speakers. These include the native speaker’s “intuition” regarding the L1, and the ability to produce “fluid, spontaneous discourse,” among others (Davies, 2008). But as one who has struggled with the issue of what it means to be a “native speaker”, this term is problematic. Consider the import placed on the concept of the native speaker in our society. One might not be admitted for work requiring a “native speaker” if this was not his first language. After all, while Davies’ definitions are more nuanced, for many in modern society it seems as though “native” often simply refers to one’s “first language.” But some of my own recent research has indicated that the native-ness of a language to a speaker can also have little to no import on the current proficiency of the person in question. In other words, proficiency and emotional attachment do not go hand-in-hand. Consider an example from my own life: while my French might be considered by some to be fluent, it is certainly not currently at an equal level to my English. And yet when placed next to someone who learned French several years later than me (it was my first language) but currently has a better command of the language, I am nonetheless typically seen as the more “genuine” French speaker…the only “native speaker” of the two.
Think of the consequences this could have in the workplace. A native speaker might be sought out for governmental work, for example, and someone with more fluent, natural use of the language could be passed up for someone less comfortable in that language than in their L2, simply because they are a “native speaker” by some fuzzy and outdated definition. I strongly believe that a sensitivity to issues of label such as this make me a better candidate for a number of professional positions, including work in content development for public radio. No where is it more vital to understand the nuances in terminology and how labels can affect identity than for a news organization that prides itself on engaging information based on fact.