Teaching sociolinguistics to undergraduates (16 Nov 06)

Date: 16 November, 2006
Location: Institute for Advanced Studies, Lancaster University
Event type: Workshop


Past event summary

This event was organised by the department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University and the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. It focussed on the teaching of sociolinguistics in UK Higher Education.

Programme for 16 November 2006
Time Session
10.00 - 10.30 Registration and coffee
10.30 - 11.20 Sociophonetics
Kevin Watson, Lancaster University and Dom Watt, University of Aberdeen
11.20 - 12.10 Language and gender
Jane Sunderland, Lancaster University and Joan Swann, The Open University
12.10 - 13.00 Language variation and change, including dialectology
David Britain, University of Essex and Paul Kerswill, Lancaster University
13.00 - 14.00 Lunch
14.00 - 14.50 Bilingualism
Mark Sebba, Lancaster University
14.50 - 15.40 Language and the media
Greg Myers and Ruth Wodak, Lancaster University
15.40 - 16.00 Tea and discussion

Event report: Teaching Sociolinguistics to Undergraduates

by Natalie Braber, Nottingham Trent University

Teaching Sociolinguistics to Undergraduates was hosted and organised by the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University with support from the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies and. This event aimed to review various aspects of sociolinguistics and how these were taught to students by different institutions in order to highlight and share good practice.

Session 1: Sociophonetics

Kevin Watson, Lancaster University and Dom Watt, University of Aberdeen

The first session dealt with the field of sociophonetics and aimed at considering what sociophonetics is as a discipline and how it relates to other fields of sociolinguistic study. Kevin Watson discussed the fact that sociophonetics is an extensive subject which identifies phonetic and phonological patterns that correlate with social categories. It can be used to identify and explain the parameters of socially-structured variation in speech, among many other things. One of the challenges of this subject area is that students need to understand and have a solid grounding in phonetics as well as sociolinguistics. It was commented that students frequently have difficulty making connections between different modules and retaining information which can be carried across subject areas.

This was followed by an outline of a linguistics module which is taught at Lancaster (Ling 203: English Language Past and Present). How the contents of this course and the subject areas within it enhanced student learning was discussed. By explaining phonetics within the context of sociolinguistics, students were able to connect phonetics to 'real speech' and subject data to acoustic methods of analysis. This allowed students to learn through practical exercises rather than just reading, while at the same time being taught about linguistic theory.

Session 2: Language and Gender

Jane Sunderland, Lancaster University and Joan Swann, The Open University

Joan Swann started the second session by explaining how Language and Gender modules varies extensively from institution to institution. Such modules could involve historical and contemporary theories of performativity; anthropology; women's studies; social psychology; and linguistics. The question was asked whether this diversity is inevitable or even desirable, or whether we should aim for more commonality?

Jane Sunderland described some of the problems in teaching Language and Gender courses. She mentioned that many students seem to believe we are now in a 'Golden Age' of equality, and find it hard to identify themselves with theories of feminism and the politics involved. Students still seem to concentrate on gender differences (which are very accessible), but many of these arguments have been superseded by the concentration of research on performativity (a much less accessible approach) which leads to a dilemma of accessibility versus academic credibility when teaching in this field. This was followed by an outline of four different models of syllabus organisation for teaching modules of Language and Gender, which ranged from (1) historical organisation of subjects to (2) topical discussion (separating lectures into 'classroom talk', 'language, gender and sexuality' etc), following (3) methodological approaches (where individual theoretical models were approached individually) or (4) taking an eclectic approach which could deal with gender differences, empirical work, discourse analysis and discursive psychology in separate sessions.

Joan Swann ended this session by questioning what Language and Gender could add to sociolinguistics teaching in general. Ideas of language and social category could be approached by looking at gender and sexuality. Furthermore, these subjects are useful for exploring such issues in other aspects of sociolinguistics such as dialect, style-shifting, language choice and code-switching.

Session 3: Language Variation and Change, including Dialectology

David Britain, University of Essex and Paul Kerswill, Lancaster University

Paul Kerswill introduced the sociolinguistics modules which run at Lancaster University and explained that many of these were closely linked with the English language. These included modules such as Language and Identities; Linguistic Methodology; and English Language: Past and Present. These modules are concerned with sociolinguistic features such as gender, ethnicity, class, language variation and change and social networks, as well as phonetic and phonological change.

Dave Britain described the two main sociolinguistics modules which run at the University of Essex: a second-year module entitled Researching Language Variation and a third-year module entitled Sociophonology. The second-year module allows students to learn through doing (understanding theory through method) as they carry out a project, as well as acquiring key skills and making connections between sociolinguistics and other areas in linguistic studies. The portfolio of the second-year module consists of recording, transcribing and analysing a 45-minute speech sample which they record themselves in the local area, and they have to conduct, present and write up a rapid anonymous survey which has to be embedded into a theoretical discussion of a particular variable. The third-year module aims at forging interdisciplinarity between phonologists and dialectologists. This allows students to examine data, but at the same time look beyond the data to find linguistic explanations for particular variables. Each week of the course looks at an individual variable and students review a corpus of between 12-18 speakers and they can choose a particular sample to analyse. Students present their findings and launch a website with their report (they are given seminars on managing their website).

These modules demonstrate the differences and similarities across disciplines. It also allows students to appreciate the role of data collection while at the same time working with linguistic theory. Carrying out projects seems to lead to a real sense of achievement for students.

Session 4: Bilingualism

Mark Sebba, Lancaster University

Mark Sebba led the session on bilingualism. The first question he dealt with was how to teach a topic like bilingualism when many students are monolingual English speakers. The subject has to be personalised and different models of bilingualism have to be discussed before many students realise that they can be considered as bilinguals speakers. Another important aspect was the fact that bilingualism can be approached from many subject areas such as psycholinguistics (including the bilingual brain and language acquisition), formal linguistics and from a sociolinguistic angle which can include literacy, language policies and planning as well as code-switching. Using case studies can illustrate different types of bilingualism.

The discussion included the idea that bilingualism can be personalised to make the subject more approachable to students and open up group discussions among students. Students can complete a sociolinguistic profile to learn more about their own linguistic patterns as well as those of others. At this point, students can learn that bilingual individuals may vary in their competence of different languages, and that individuals and societies can be bilingual to varying extents. This allows for the introduction of topics such as diglossia, language shift, ethnicity and language and code-switching. This can lead to exploring contemporary issues such as integration of people within modern urban societies and corresponding language policies. Students can examine the different functions of a language within a community and how language use can be valued or suppressed to varying extents. This can affect how a language is viewed within a community and how languages are represented, particularly minority languages with regard to language policy and teaching.

Session 5: Language and the media

Greg Myers and Ruth Wodak, Lancaster University

Greg Myers introduced this session by explaining that the linguistic study of media includes a wide range of topics: critical studies of media texts, corpus studies, critical analysis of broadcast or telephone talk and the sociolinguistic study of variation in broadcast pronunciation. There are also numerous new fields of study, many of which are constantly developing and these include: mass media communication, new media (such as blogs and discussion sites), the changing norms of interaction within communication and the effects this has on variation in syntax, phonetics and genre. Issues of language choice are very relevant as are identities of those taking part within the communication.

Greg Myers and Ruth Wodak each presented a case study looking at a piece of new media (from discussion boards) and examined its linguistic features. These included identities in diaspora, themes of intertextuality and news features, and how speakers/writers present themselves in the new media. Discourse analysis of these texts was also discussed and some themes were found across these two texts: the idea that anything goes (regarding length of discussions, spelling, forms of address and politeness), conversational maxims do not seem to be important and there was very little conventional dialogical organization, often due to the fact that texts were being created simultaneously. This leads to a lack of sequential temporality as different postings can happen at the same time but on different topics. Those taking part in such communication can construct their own subjectivity, identifying themselves in any way they want to.

To end this session Greg Myers commented on the fact that many students have simplistic attitudes about language and media (e.g. broadsheets are better than tabloids, new technology makes media better/worse), so that students need a basic theory of media before they can come to terms with linguistic analysis. They also need to know about pragmatic and interactional norms - by knowing how these features work in 'traditional' linguistics they can be used to examine new data. Some practical ideas to help students were illustrated, e.g. that comparing texts can be a helpful way to analyse language. Also creating a checklist of important features, such as grammatical features, lexical items, pragmatic features can help students cover a large subject area and link these to social practices such as when and how do speakers/writers use these texts? They concluded by noting that many new forms of media have not been adequately researched by academics and this is an interesting area for further study.