What sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology can do for you / PART 1

Before you read it, think quickly: Why do learners think native speakers make better teachers?

Now let me share something with you: I have recently come across some works by sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists — as well as social theorists, and I began to wonder why I had not related the latest developments of linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics to language learning and teaching.  As English teachers, we tend to pay more attention to what applied linguists are doing in our field rather than think about macro issues that lead people to think the way they do and to have certain beliefs about language learning and, mainly, about what languages should be learned. Whether we like it or we not, these macro issues are present in our everyday lives and they impact our lives much more than we may be aware of. Ultimately, issues such as ideology and inequality have strong implications ranging from language policies in our country to the way we feel about a certain language and which languages we choose to value more than others. Simply put, sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology can help us understand what lies behind the motivations of our students to learn English and where our motivations to teach English come from. But what exactly are these areas of study?


First things first, sociolinguistics is the branch of linguistics that is concerned with the differential “distribution of linguistic resources in society” (BLOMMAERT, 2005:10). Sociolinguists such as Hans-Josef Gumperz (1922-2013), Dell Hymes (1927-2009) and Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) focus on the interactional patterns in small communities and in social encounters, while American linguist William Labov (1927-), famous for his studies of narratives,  and Canadian mathematician and linguist Sankoff  (1942-) study  quantitative paradigms of variation studies addressing correlations between linguistic variations and social variations, such as race, gender, and class. As we can see, sociolinguistics deals with a number of aspects of language use by societies, but one thing that sociolinguists are concerned about is how linguistic resources are distributed in societies, that is, how much access people have to languages and how their use of language impacts their lives and the lives of others.

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology has its roots in American anthropology, namely German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), whose pioneering work that challenged scientific racism postulated that there aren’t higher cultural forms and that we are the result of social interactions. Just like Franz Boas, linguistic anthropologists try to view societies from the “native point of view,” that is, try to understand cultures as seen and experienced by their members rather than from the standpoint of ruling countries and those in power. In this sense, language may be viewed as the result of repeated social interactions experienced by speakers. In their view,  not only does language express one’s self, but it is loaded with ideologies, as it doesn’t refer to things; rather, it constructs things. For example, during our everyday interactions, our words may construct  social inequality, hegemonic discourses, and group identities. This macro view of language should not be dismissed by us teachers because these issues mark their presence in our classroom and we should be open to the idea of discussing them with our students whenever opportunities arise.

For example, many students try to reach a native-like accent and they may view native speakers of British or American English as the ideal speakers of English. However, funnily enough, speakers of South-African English may not be regarded as ideal speakers. This belief is nothing but a construct, and as such, it should be deconstructed, as Blommaert and Rampton assert below:

Historically, a good deal of the model-building in formal, descriptive and applied linguistics has prioritized the ‘native speakers of a language’, treating early experience of living in families and stable speech communities as crucial to grammatical competence and coherent discourse. But sociolinguists have long contested this idealization, regarding it as impossible to reconcile with the facts of linguistic diversity, mixed language and multilingualism (Ferguson 1982; Leung, Harris & Rampton 1997).


THat said, the authors propose the notion of “linguistic repertoire” as an alternative to the idealized speaker of a language. There is no link between upbringing and origins and one’s proficiency given the fact that there can be a great deal of variables in one’s biographical trajectories and experiences, not to mention the fact that it is all too fragmented in a globalized world, in which “communication technologies are reshaping the way language is used”  (2011:4). What we bring with us to communicative events is the fruit of our previous experiences as well as our previous expectations about the people we will be interacting with and the nature of the event itself. Not two individuals share the same repertoires if we consider that language is combined, so to speak, with social aspects. In short, language and culture are part of the same package.

As you can see, our beliefs are deeply ingrained in the way society views things,  and our ideas may not be really our own ideas, but somebody else’s. So, just as an exercise, ask teachers and learners what they think about the idea of ‘native speakerism’ and find out for yourself. You will be surprised. Or maybe you won’t.

To learn more:

BLOMMAERT, J. Discourse: a critical introduction. NY: CUP, 2005.

BLOOMAERT, J. RAMPTON, B.  Language and Superdiversity. Diversities, v.13, n. 2, 2011. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254777452

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

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