Lecturers’ Corner: A Post from the Sociolinguistics Course in our MA

I was excited when one of my colleagues pointed out to me that there was an article by Ravindranath (2015) about sociolinguistics and language contact in a recent issue of the journal Language and Linguistics Compass. I decided straight away after reading it to make it part of the reading material for the very first week of our course in sociolinguistics (‘The Multilingual Community’) in the MA Multilingualism. In this post I’d like to reflect a bit upon the piece as I did when I was reading it, and particularly with the question of why I found such few mentions of European studies of language contact from a sociolinguistic perspective.

I decided to use the article by Ravindranath (2015) to make sure all students had the same point of departure for the course. It gives an excellent summary of the development of variationist sociolinguistics and contact linguistics as interrelated fields. Ravindranath (2015) implies that variationist sociolinguistics has focussed too much on monolingual communities, and that we should approach multilingual speech communities with the same methodological rigour that we’ve treated others in the past. This methodology could be accomplished, she argues, through the creation of more, and improved, multilingual speech corpora as well as a better understanding for meaningful social categories in multilingual communities, more attention to styles in speech, as well as a consideration of sociological variables such as sociocultural and historical context and language ideologies when dealing with language change in multilingual communities. While reading the piece it struck me how few non-English speaking multilingual communities were mentioned! After all, it’s my impression that linguistic research in Scandinavia and on continental Europe has dealt with multilingualism and language change for decades.

One of the reasons why such few European studies were mentioned could lie in the fact that variationist sociolinguistics is a field with a large dominance of studies from the Anglo-American context – something that has been pointed out before (e.g. here). As a researcher who has hardly ever written a thing about English I can’t really complain about a bias towards English speech communities in my field  – at the majority of the conferences I go to people seem happy to hear about a context where English is not the majority language. However, it seems to be the case that European multilingualism research has a promotional problem to the rest of the sociolinguistic community. Studies, in English, about bilingualism, language contact and language change exist but never reach the radar of variationist researchers elsewhere.

There are wonderful studies of bilingualism and language change in Frisian, for example, from the 1980s and 1990s that use variationist sociolinguistic methodologies, such as Feitsma et al. (1987) about Sandhi phenomena and Ytsma (1995) about language change in Frisian and child language acquisition. There are also more historical studies that investigate language contact and change – there’s an excellent study of the effects of language planning on Norwegian language change (Jahr, 1989), or another historical paper about the contact between Low German and Scandinavian languages (Jahr, 1994) that would fit Ravindranath’s (2015) bill. Whilst I understand that a consideration of the papers above in Ravindranath’s (2015) piece is too much to ask I am wondering why studies considering language change in superdiverse urban European contexts, such as Cheshire et al. (2011) or Jannedy and Weireich (2014) are not mentioned in the article. Studies of language change and multiethnolectal, or multicultural, speech varieties in Europe today have massively increased an interest in students and researchers to consider language contact from a sociolinguistic perspective.

In our MA we try to discuss ‘lesser known’ cases in detail, yet it remains a paradox that we teach our degree in English and hence the texts we use must be written in English. An equally important issue why multilingual European communities are underrepresented in sociolinguistic (as well as contact linguistic) work could, paradoxically, be a linguistic one. Many fundamental studies that deal with language change in our communities were written in our national languages. Off the top of my head I can name quite a few relevant sources that would fit Ravindranath’s (2015) bill written or published in Norwegian: Helge Sandøy’s work on language contact in Norwegian and Faeroese, for instance, or the the wonderful large-scale corpus of Oslo speech in the 2000s (Nota) that includes speakers with a bilingual, and often immigrant, background. The language paradox applies to corpora and individual articles, but also to overview pieces such as Cornips and Vogelaer (2012), that is (also) about the relationship between language change in the Dutch article system, and contact with immigrant languages.

Of course there is also the point that there’s a lack of attention for multilingualism in European sociolinguistic research altogether. In fact, if you were to ask me which field is the one with the most attention to multilingualism I would probably mention psycholinguistics or applied linguistics before sociolinguistics. Group language acquisition, and transfer or interference between linguistic systems, are topics that applied linguistics, much more than sociolinguistics, have considered. This brings me to my final point, namely that perhaps differently from the UK and the US, bilingualism is viewed as completely necessary and part of a day to day reality in many European states. The focus of the research on bilingualism has perhaps therefore been more centred towards the applied context. It has concerned itself with how we can get speakers to best develop their bilingual competence, rather than looking into how that competence has an effect on language change.

I’d like to make clear that I wholly recommend Ravindranath (2015) to students and researchers both. I understand it could never give a complete bibliography of studies at the intersection between variationist sociolinguistics and contact linguistics. I also completely agree with the author that we have a long way to go before we have reached a sociolinguistic theory of language change in multilingual communities. I do, however, think that European researchers could become better at advertising some of the wonderful studies they’re doing, and that degree programmes such as ours have a responsibility to make sure that the existing local knowledge is transmitted to researchers of the future. 

Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S., & Torgersen, E. (2011). Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 15(2), 151-196.

Cornips, L., & De Vogelaer, G. (2009). Variatie en verandering in het Nederlandse genus: een multidisciplinair perspectief. Taal en Tongval, 61(1), 1-12.

Feitsma, T., Van der Geest, E. Van der Kuip, P & Meekma, I. (1987). Variations and development in Frisian sandhi phenomena. International journal of the sociology of language, 1987(64), 81-94.

Jahr, E. H. (1989). Language planning and language change. Language change: contributions to the study of its causes. Berlin, New York, Mouton de Gruyter

Jahr, E. H. (1994). Språkkontakt og språkforandring i Norden i hansatida [Language Contact and Language Change in Scandinavian during the Hansa Period]. Dialektkontakt, språkkontakt och språkförändring i Norden, 23-37.

Jannedy, S., & Weirich, M. (2014). Sound change in an urban setting: Category instability of the palatal fricative in Berlin. Laboratory Phonology, 5(1), 91-122.Ravindranath, M. (2015). Sociolinguistic Variation and Language Contact. Language and Linguistics Compass, 9(6), 243-255.

Van Bezooijen, R. (2009). The pronunciation of/r/in Frisian. Variation in Indigenous Minority Languages, 25, 299.

Ytsma, J. (1995). Frisian as first and second language: sociolinguistic and socio-psychological aspects of the acquisition of Frisian among Frisian and Dutch primary school children (Doctoral dissertation, Katholieke Universiteit Brabant).