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What is Sociolinguistics?

Managing Language

Managing Language in a Multicultural Nation
In a global economy, the need to nurture, cultivate and manage multilingual resources within the United States is more pronounced than ever. John Baugh explains why. Read Summary.

Although American English, in all its diversity, is unquestionably our dominant national language, this country has always had a complex multilingual history. Long before European settlers colonized North and South America, thousands of indigenous languages thrived from coast to coast. As colonists and slaves populated the area, multilingualism in America increased — albeit under the growing domination of provincial American English dialects. And with each new wave of immigrants from every conceivable point on the globe, the linguistic and cultural diversity of the United States has continued to grow.

Given the demands of the birth of the American nation, language planning tended to be neglected. As a result, the political and economic clout of the early English settlers in the original 13 colonies established a sociolinguistic hierarchy that still prevails.

Linguistics helps us to understand our polygot nation

Today, the academic endeavor called linguistics helps us to understand our polyglot nation. Scholars who study applied linguistics, anthropological linguistics, educational linguistics, historical linguistics, dialectology, sociolinguistics and more, have contributed to our understanding of multilingual America.

Although many citizens are deeply committed to the role played by American English as our pre-eminent national language, we should never lose sight of the fact that this nation of immigrants continually experiences ever-changing linguistic tides as new residents yearn to share the American dream. A dream that often exceeds their English fluency.

The European nations that colonized the Americas left indelible linguistic impressions on their former colonies (including many African countries, Australia, India and parts of Asia). Today, the global spread of the English era owes much of its vibrancy to the economic and technological advantages gained by the U.S. after World War II. Since that time, educators and politicians in nearly every other industrialized country have devoted considerable resources to the teaching of English — in striking contrast to how the vast majority of American schools have reduced or eliminated foreign-language educations as extraneous, if not superfluous.

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Today, given the global economy, the need to nurture, cultivate and even manage multilingual resources within America is more pronounced than ever. Some of this linguistic management is being addressed by market forces, as advertisers and broadcasters strive to appeal to the ever growing numbers of non-English speakers who as U.S. residents and citizens are increasingly important consumers of goods and services. Politicians have been keen to learn new languages to demonstrate their empathy for non-English speaking voters. Some employers, including many multinational corporations, have begun to recognize the value of linguistic diversity among their employees; service businesses in particular place great value upon the prospect of hiring bilingual or trilingual workers. Diplomats and military strategists have always recognized the importance of knowing other languages, but rarely have they managed linguistic resources adequately.

The consequences of strategic linguistic mis-management have been devastating. For instance, firefighters, ambulance drivers, and hospital workers across the United States bemoan the fact that many human tragedies could be averted or diminished if it weren’t for communication gaps between those in need of emergency services (who frequently do not speak English) and first responders who lack ready access to vital linguistic translation.

Unfortunately the work of linguists is often overlooked when it comes to managing linguistic diversity in this nation of immigrants. Taking full advantage of America’s tremendous multilingual resources should not be neglected; by doing so we are truly shortsighted. Sociolinguists can play an important role in building a national linguistic infrastructure that can enhance our prospects for multilingual communication along with our well-being.

Managing Language, from Lab to Label

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Under some circumstances, such as the teaching of reading or foreign languages in schools, linguistic management is explicit and controlled by a formal authority figure, such as a teacher. Under other circumstances, such as when immigrants from the same place cluster in the same neighborhood, language management may be an organic by-product of circumstances that are not explicitly or externally controlled. Linguists who study the forms of language management in schools, businesses and society at large can explore these different facets of human language and linguistic interaction.

Linguists investigate their topic in a variety of ways, depending on the question at hand. Theoretical linguists may be interested in varied cognitive and developmental questions pertaining to the speed and accuracy with which children learn one or more languages, whereas sociolinguists are likely to be concerned about the circumstances under which people encounter the various languages that they either acquire or learn.

(Linguists make an essential distinction between natural language acquisition, which takes place after birth without the aid for formal linguistic instruction, and language learning, which typically results from formal language instruction; it does not result from the same natural language acquisition processes that give rise to the first languages that children adopt natively.)

Linguistic analyses can be qualitative or quantitative

Some language research lends itself to precise quantitative analyses that can often be validated in controlled experiments. Other linguistic analyses are qualitative; a linguist may observe and/or record the relevant evidence with little or no effort to control the language behaviors under study.

These general methods of observation are used not only in linguistic inquiry, but throughout the social sciences. However, when viewed in terms of their relevance to real-world multilingual management, they take on a slightly different tenor. One can easily imagine that corporations selling to international markets need to hire people who have the linguistic and cultural knowledge to effectively communicate within the organization while simultaneously possessing the skills to advance sales and advertising in the desired foreign market. In many instances, a global corporation may strive to develop a targeted advertising campaign that does not call undue attention to the fact that the product in question is imported; this can only be done with skillful linguistic management.

American consumers are familiar with this trend, as when products made in China or Germany are marketed in the United States under labels that masquerade as home-grown commodities. The inverse is also true; domestic U.S. products are given foreign names to imply exotic origins. The controversy over whether it is permissible to label any sparkling wine “champagne” if it doesn’t come from France’s Champagne region further illustrates the significance of language management in the global marketplace.

Non-U.S. consumers are often treated to similar experiences when products developed in the United States are repackaged to appeal to local consumers in distant lands. At first blush, these kinds of business issues would seem to be the obvious province of economists, executives or international bankers, but they demand acute linguistic attention if they are going to succeed. Businesses that ignore the importance of linguistic details are much less likely to win customers — and could make embarrassing gaffes.

Linguistics: An Artful Science

Linguistic analyses can be used for everything from instruction to national security

International trade, diplomacy, tourism, education and many other endeavors demand explicit linguistic attention. Linguists use a variety of procedures to explore these and other language-related topics. Some studies are devoted to minute linguistic details, such as pronunciation. Using controlled and natural recordings of the languages or dialects, linguists can measure with precision how phrases, words, or particular sounds (e.g. vowels, consonants, or diphthongs) are pronounced by speakers from different groups. These analyses can be used for everything from instruction to national security, because they can even alert experts to possible threats posed by speakers of designated languages or dialects. Psychologists who study anger management often benefit from sensitivity to linguistic circumstances — and the knowledge that what may sound like an angry diatribe in one language may sound simply like aggravated speech in another.

Some linguistic principles are sacrosanct, not disputed among reputable linguists, such as the universality of syntax in human languages, or the developmental stages of primary language acquisition by infants. Even so, professional proclivities and honest differences of opinion have produced a broad array of methods that are more-or-less well suited to studies of language management. What’s more, different lines of inquiry look for answers that rest in different types of evidence. As a result, linguistics is perpetually and intellectually, rather eclectic, with scholars differing in their methods and opinions — occasionally in public, as when two linguists are expert witnesses in opposite sides of a trial.

The ultimate test of the scientific validity of expert analyses depends, in large measure, on having results that can be reproduced. However, precise replication is difficult (if not impossible) under circumstances in which the critical evidence is beyond the control of the researcher. Be that as it may, we can make every effort to recreate the conditions under which scientific analyses are conducted, including times when language planning and linguistic management are central.

Language planners are people who strive to engineer linguistic circumstances and chart the future course of linguistic events. By contrast, those who seek to manage languages may be less concerned with manipulating linguistic behavior — if they want to do it at all. They are primarily interested in understanding the linguistic complexity of situations or institutions that fall under their guidance or leadership.Multinational corporations, diplomats, military leaders, and entrepreneurs who serve clients from diverse backgrounds exemplify the vast array of social circumstances where effective language planning and linguistic management are vital assets.

Many people harbor strong feelings about language and have corresponding ideologies about how they use and speak their language, but linguists have to stay impartial. It falls to us to provide precise accounts of how people use language day to day — and, in so doing, to advance our knowledge of language use in all of humankind.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1994. 
  • Coulmas, Florian, ed. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  • Macaulay, Ronald K. S. The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994.
John Baugh joined Stanford University as Professor of Education and Linguistics in 1990. Prior to his tenure at Stanford, Dr. Baugh served as Associate Professor of Linguistics and Foreign Language Education at the University of Texas at Austin and as Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Black Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology at Swarthmore College. Dr. Baugh has published extensively in the fields of Anthropology, Education, Legal Affairs, Linguistics, Sociology and Urban Studies. His work bridges theoretical and applied linguistics, with particular attention to matters of policy and social equity in the fields of education, medicine, and the law. He has conducted extensive research regarding the social stratification of linguistic diversity within the U.S., Austria, Brazil, Hungary, South Africa, and the UK, and is actively engaged in ongoing research that examines the evolution and dissemination of English and other European languages in post-colonial contexts throughout the world. Dr. Baugh is a past president of the American Dialect Society and a member of the usage advisory committee for the American Heritage English Dictionary. He has also served as consultant on several documentary films related to American language and as an expert witness in court cases where matters of voice recognition and language attitudes have been central. Dr. Baugh received his B.A. in Speech and Rhetoric at Temple University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently sits on the Boards of the Consortiuum of Social Science Associations, Eastside Prep, Raising a Reader, and Project Pericles.

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