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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 Full Article.

American English, in all its diversity, is unquestionably our dominant national language, yet the United States has had a complex multilingual history. Long before European settlers colonized North and South America, thousands of indigenous languages thrived from coast to coast. As European colonials and African slaves populated the land, multilingualism increased, with provincial American English dialects dominating. With each new wave of immigrants from every conceivable point on the globe, the nation’s linguistic and cultural diversity continued to grow.

Language planning tended to be neglected during the birth of the American nation. 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.

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 English owes much of its vibrancy to the economic and technological advantages gained by the U.S. after the end of World War II. Since that time, educators and politicians in nearly every other advanced 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 education as extraneous, if not superfluous.

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 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 mismanagement can be devastating. Across the nation, firefighters, ambulance drivers and hospital workers 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.

As this example reveals, the work of linguists can play a key role in building a national linguistic infrastructure that can enhance our prospects for multilingual communication — with, among other benefits, improved efficiency, health and safety.

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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