How is Sociolinguistics studied?

  • There are two approaches to the study of sociolinguistics 'micro' and 'macro'.
  • Sociolinguistics focuses on 'linguistic performance'.
  • It is studied in relation to the actual language that is produced and the way it is used in its wider social context.
  • As a fairly new discipline areas of inquiry in the past primarily studied language in relation to 'linguistic competence'.


Linguistic Competence: Knowledge of grammar

Linguistic Performance:
Use of language

I-Language: Internal system in the mind

E-Language: External reflection of language

Observers Paradox: People alter their speech when they are aware they are being observed

Independent variables: The thing that changes in order to test/ measure the dependent variable

Dependent variables:
The phenomenon that is being measure i.e. point of interest to researcher

Matched guise test: Recording of the same speaker using more than one answer. Sample/informants answers a attitudinal focused questionnaire

Verbal guise test: A range of speakers reading the same passage. Informants assess each speaker in a questionnaire

Vernacular: A dialect spoken in a certain region normally by ordinary people
Micro Sociolinguistics
Macro Sociolinguistics

The social and linguistic influence on specific linguistic features. They look at individual differences and the way they are used e.g. the variation between 'singing' and 'singin''. [4]

Studies about language and communication more generally. Look at language data on a wider scale which leads to generalisations and conclusions to be identified e.g. the choices made about conversational structure.[4]

Competence Vs Performance

Competence: Study of language in relation to:
  • Linguistics Competence
  • I - Language
Noam Chomsky argued that the focus of linguistics should address the innate capacity humans have of language. He proposed his theory of 'Universal Grammar' which he defined as "The systems of principles, conditions and rules that are elements of properties of all languages... The essence of human language" (Chomsky: 1976)
Performance: Study of language in relation to:
  • Linguistics Performance     
  • E - Language  
The way language is used in social and cultural contexts is structured in a way to fulfill particular social goals.

2. Methods and Applications

The focus for a linguistic study must have a purpose and that purpose must be to answer a particular linguistic or social question. The way in which it is studied is through sociolinguistic theory and linguistic data, however any conclusions that are drawn from this must be based on empirically tested evidence to be of any sociolinguistic significance.[4]

So, how do sociolinguists collect speech data for scientific and empirical analysis?

Fieldwork conducted within a community to study the linguistic behaviors between different cultures and social groups through observation and interpretation by which a recoding device is used to document the findings. This type of observation strives to collect natural speech data and uncover what social factors may influence it e.g. age, gender, social class, ethnicity etc. Language can be extremely dependent on social context for example we manipulate our speech depending on the receiver, so in other words we wouldn't speak to our manager or work colleague in the same way we might talk to a friend or family member.

However one problem in trying to elicit natural speech data when they know they are being observed is labelled 'observers paradox' which refers to the presence of the observer affecting the language produced, the speaker may become self-conscious which raises the question, how natural is the speech data? One way to overcome this problem is by conducting research using the sociolinguistic interview developed by William Labov.[3]

This sort of methodology is used to collect different styles of speech in the format of an interview. Examples of speech data are elicited by either reading a passage, reading a word list, reading minimal pairs or through an emotionally driven interview.[3]

Participants are generally less self-conscious and pay less attention to their speech when they become involved in an emotionally engaging narrative. They become so immersed in the content of what they are saying they almost forget that they are being observed therefore producing more natural spontaneous speech for example "Have you ever been emotionally, verbally or physically attacked?"

  • Statistics and Questionnaires
Statistics enables the researcher to quantify masses amounts of data and find out what they mean by using numbers.[2] An understanding of statistical depends on four notions:
  1. Population: This is also referred to as a sample which consists of people that are important to a researcher based on some quality, which is usually a demographic quality such as gender, age, ethnicity etc.
  2. Characteristic: Some sort of characteristic of the population e.g. linguistic diversity. Another name for a characteristic is a variable and there are two different sorts - 'independent variables' and 'dependent variables'.[2]
  3. Quantification: This is a way of measuring the data. For example 'matched guise questionnaires' and 'verbal guise tests' are helpful in finding out about attitudes towards language accent and dialect. Using questionnaires to find out demographic information can reveal patterns between a demographic value e.g. social class, gender, age etc and the variable under study.
  4. Distribution:  A way of calculating an average of the measurements (scores). Descriptive statistics is useful in finding out the distributions within a set of data as it calculates the mean (adding the scores for every person within the sample then dividing it by the total number of the sample size) and the standard deviation (how the scores are positioned in relation to the mean e.g. a small standard deviation means they are close to the mean and a large standard deviation means that they are more widespread i.e. a few further away from the mean).[2]

3. An example study: "Linguistic variation and social function" by Jenny Cheshire

If you would like to find out more about methods and applications in practice please see further An example study: "Linguistic variation and social function" by Jenny Cheshire to find out what her findings were.


[1] Cheshire, J., (1982). 'Linguistic Variation and Social Function'. In: Romaine, S. (ed). Sociolinguistic Variation in Speech Communities. London: Edward Arnold Ltd. pp.153-166.
[2] Fasold, R., (1984). The Sociolinguistics of Society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Ltd.
[3] Spolsky, B., (1998). Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Wardhaugh, R., (2006). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell publishing Ltd.