Sociolinguistic Noticing: On Being a Sociolinguist among Normal People (by Dr. Alison Crump)

Sociolinguistic noticing is something I do pretty much all the time. It is something that I encouraged my recent cohort of grad students to do as well. On our online discussion board, they shared reflections related to topics and ideas we were covering in the course, and made connections between their own (and others’) language teaching and learning experiences and sociolinguistic issues (e.g., identity, social status, place, race, gender, language variation, language ideologies, multilingualism, language policy, etc.). I was also an active participant in the online conversations and now that the course is over, I find that I’m missing that forum for exploring rich, insightful, and often puzzling ideas. This blog is a perfect place to continue to write down some of my ongoing noticing.

Before I move on, I should clarify that I consider myself to be both a sociolinguist and a (relatively) normal person. One does not preclude the other. Everyone is an expert on language vis-à-vis their own lived experiences. But there is a difference. I saw, for example, as my course went on, a shift in the types of questions the students were asking in their online posts. They were moving from being normal people (reflecting on their language learning and teaching as personal experiences) to being sociolinguists (questioning intersecting issues underlying these experiences through an informed critical and social practices lens).

I’d like to share a few sociolinguistic noticings from a conference on graduate education that I went to recently. (On the road trip to New England where the conference took place, I took many pictures, some of which I’ve included in this post.)

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magnolia

Sociolinguistic Noticing #1: International Graduate Students are Drivers of Change in Graduate Studies

One of the keynote speakers at the conference highlighted the shifting demographic of graduate students, as international recruitment (read as: visible and audible minority students) is becoming increasingly important for grad studies in North America. It was not the minority/ minoritized piece that was noted as increasingly important, but the recruitment piece. In my mind, however, it is impossible (and irresponsible) to separate the two. What was not presented in the keynote was what this shifting demographic means for universities in terms of services, support, and opportunities provided for minoritized students in graduate programs.

  • What are the sociolinguistic implications of increasing international recruitment for (in this case) North American universities?
  • What are universities doing to support minoritized international students? What do they think they should be doing?
  • What is the perceived value of holding a North American graduate degree in, say, China or Saudi Arabia, and, does it live up to the actual capital (economic, social, linguistic, or otherwise) gained?

The next keynote speaker addressed similar trends, and structured her talk around a model she implemented that addressed what she framed as the problem of the lack of intelligibility of international teaching assistants (ITAs). Instead of telling the conference participants (upper administrators of graduate studies from universities across North America) about what her institution is doing to support ITAs, the model she shared with us involved replacing ITAs with honours undergraduate students as TAs because they are “fluent in English”. Aside from the obvious and problematic assumption in her model that “local” students are all monolingually proficient in English (and thereby automatically better suited to TA) and all international students are anything but that, this model overlooks the question of responsibility. This model sounds like it widens the gap between minoritized international graduate students by removing opportunities for them to develop important skills and experiences that could support them in their career pathways post-degree, rather than supporting them.

I managed to squeeze in a brief conversation with the keynote and raise some of my concerns. To be fair, she assured me that this system gives ITAs more time at the beginning of their degrees to do research assistant work and time to improve their English skills before taking on TA work. She didn’t say this in her presentation, however, and this is exactly where sociolinguists and normal people differ. For me, the question of where responsibility lies and how certain practices can advantage or disadvantage individuals needs to be at the forefront of decision-making processes. But for normal people, this is not the primary lens for interpreting new trends and patterns.

barking cat

Sociolinguistic Noticing # 2: Language Testing is High Security Business

Related to #1, I had a conversation with a representative of a global language testing company about the security measures taken in some English proficiency test sites around the world to counter identity fraud among test-takers. I heard about palm-vein scanning, randomized tests, voice recognition, and data forensics. I wondered out loud if it is easier to fly internationally than it is to take an English proficiency test. But he spoke to me about these cutting-edge security measures with pride: “Our security measures make our tests results secure and reliable”. I started talking to him about the incredible push towards English that drives people to want to gain (real or imagined?) access to certain types of linguistic, social, and economic capital by getting a graduate degree from a North American university. I wanted to talk about the sociolinguistic implications of the westernization of higher education, the social impact of high-stakes testing, the individual stories of test-takers. But, alas, I found that I was talking to a normal person.

pizza

Sociolinguistic Noticing #3: Talking to Normal People Inspires Ideas for New Things to Explore

One evening after the conference, I was sipping wine with a couple of my colleagues. Somehow we got onto the topic of language in Montreal (I take full responsibility for this) and I rambled on about how neglected the elderly are in sociolinguistic research. Many have experienced significant shifts in their language environments (either through immigration or the implementation of Bill 101 in 1977, or both). My colleague, who was born in Portugal and immigrated to Canada as a young girl said,

“I can’t believe I’ve never thought of this before. My mother is so adamant that I not put her in a nursing home and I always thought it was just because of tradition that my mom resists the idea. She expects me to take care of her at home as she ages. But I just realized that the idea of going to a nursing home for her is probably terrifying. She barely speaks English or French, just Portuguese. Can you imagine?”

Well no, I can’t. But this made me think that I COULD imagine exploring this further. In Montreal, with an aging, linguistically diverse population, what are these later life transitions like? What support is there for elderly people, who, like ALL people, want to have a sense of belonging, a need to express who they are and what they need in ways that can be understood by those around them? There’s the small lack of funds or time for research, but I am adding these questions to my list of Things to Explore (if questions like this are also on your list, let’s talk!).

hi-way diner

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7 thoughts on “Sociolinguistic Noticing: On Being a Sociolinguist among Normal People (by Dr. Alison Crump)

  1. Regarding noticing #1, I also think about work showing that pronunciation and language ability are not the only thing — and perhaps not even the primary one — affecting the intelligibility of international teaching assistants. See, for example, Rubin 1992. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00973770

    Giving ITAs more time to use English may allow them to develop some linguistic ability, but making classes more intelligible may require work on the student side just as much as the TA side.

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    1. Hi Chad,

      On behalf of my fellow BILDers, I’d like to thank you for your comment on our blog. You’re the first one outside our research group to comment. We’ve been up and running since late last fall and it’s exciting to see that we’re slowly connecting with people beyond our group. That was the whole point of the blog. So, welcome!

      I agree that pronunciation/ language ability is just one part of the intelligibility package. I am not sure university administrators are thinking along the lines that Rubin was talking about (that intelligibility is influenced by ethnicity), but they should be! This reminds me of Lippi-Green’s (1997) book (English with an Accent) and her argument that people “see” accent. Critical race theorist, Mari Matsuda (Where is your Body, 1996), also writes powerfully about the intersections of language and race/ ethnicity in judgements of intelligibility and discrimination. Lots to discuss, for sure.

      I really appreciate that you brought up the issue of the responsibility for intelligibility needing to be shared; that is, the onus should not lie all on ITAs to do all the work in interactions, though it so often does. Conversation analysis of conversation repairs between “native” and “non-native speakers” of English, not surprisingly, shows that NNSs take on more of the work of repairing communication breakdowns. How do we encourage a shift in perspective?

      Look forward to continuing the conversation.

      Cheers,
      Alison

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  2. Hey Alison,
    Your last point about the elderly is really interesting, and definitely something worth talking about! This is not something that I have any experience with, but you might find this podcast interesting: http://www.npr.org/tags/369401795/invisibilia. They talked to an elderly Indian man and his ideas about starting an Indian retirement community in Florida!
    Hope to chat to you more about sociolinguistic happenings soon 🙂
    Michaela

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  3. Hi Michaela,

    Thanks! I’ll give this a listen now. It makes sense, though, that people are healthier and happier when they have a sense of belonging.

    Here’s to continuing conversations!

    Cheers,
    Alison

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