Exploring thoughts while Riding the Waves of Variation (by Sumanthra Govender)



BILD has given me the opportunity to discover multiple points of view about socio-cultural change and identity fluidity. This safe space has also allowed me to delve into and question different aspects of linguistic change and diversity. An inherent characteristic of language is its variation. In recent months, I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of language variation: how languages move on, change, and diversify themselves from their “root”. I’ve also had similar thoughts about the speakers of these languages. With my research focus on minority language communities, specifically adult heritage language learners and mixed heritage identities, I’ve been wondering how these learners and their identities are being realised in relation to the “three waves of language variation” (Eckert, 2012) in sociolinguistics. The first wave examines language variability among demographic categories (age, sex, and ethnicity), and it does so in a quantitative manner. This first wave has been famously marked by Williams Labov’s Martha’s Vineyard Study (1963) and New York Study (1966), both of which dealt with social stratification based on language differences and highlighted how people and communities can choose to be different based on how they want to distinguish themselves from others’ pronunciation and accent variation. The second wave of language variation takes an ethnographic approach to examining the relationship between language variety and community, and the third wave focuses on the social meaning of the variables of language change. When looking at these waves with respect to minority language communities in terms of language and identity affinity, I wonder where minority language learners situate themselves.

As a member of a minority language community, I, like many others, identify with an ethno-cultural community but have little to zero proficiency in the language. For some, I’m not considered a member of the community because of this lack of language proficiency. Would this then mean that I’m not even part of the waves of variation for my minority language group? If so, I would have to challenge this perspective. I see myself as part of the waves because I identify with the community, even though my limited linguistic knowledge might set me apart from others in my group.

I’ve been mulling over similar thoughts of this three wave theory in terms of how and where heritage language learners of mixed/hybrid backgrounds fit into its ripples. While the first and second waves of language variation seem to be concerned with structural and potentially “static categories of speakers and equated identity with category affiliation” (Eckert, 2012, p. 93) that happens unknowingly due to the nature of the social space.  The
 speakers’ ongoing negotiation of selves where their linguistic and stylistic practices situate them in different social spaces. I believe that it is in this third wave that much can be discovered about mixed heritage learners who straddle two or more cultural and linguistic boundaries. The strength of their presence in their ethno-cultural communities and proficiency level in their ethno-cultural language could mark them at different points of the wave, thus revealing novel avenues of heritage language variation and identity that remain to be explored. I propose that within this third wave, educators, learners, researchers, and policy makers can see how heritage identity and affinity are impacted by linguistic practice.

Within these rudimentary thoughts, I also wondering if burgeoning research on heritage language learners and mixed identity speakers might actually be investigating a fourth wave of language variation. I can envision this fourth wave as a ripple where social, cultural, and political rhetoric might put forth challenges for people to embrace their linguistic and cultural diversity. Within this fourth wave, what factors will push heritage learners, speakers, and users to face new experiences of language maintenance, create diverse identities, and carve out new paths of their ethno-cultural reality? I feel as if I’m about to ride this new wave of language variation and change, and I think it’s going to be quite the trip.

Dear Readers, What do you think? Are heritage learners riding the third wave and is there a potential fourth?


Eckert, P. (2012). Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation. Annual review of Anthropology, 41, 87-100.

Labov, W. (1963). The social motivation of a sound change. Word, 19(3), 273-309.

Labov W. 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Cambridge University Press.



2 thoughts on “Exploring thoughts while Riding the Waves of Variation (by Sumanthra Govender)

  1. Whatever you want to call that wave, I’m riding it with you! Here in India I am surrounded by one of my heritage languages, Bengali…I don’t exactly speak it, but I don’t exactly not speak it either! I expect that by the time I fly out, five weeks from now, a lot will have changed in my relationship to this beautiful language and some of the people who speak it.


    1. I can’t wait to hear all about your time in India, familial, social, cultural, and linguistic. What a rich experience! I’m thinking I will be having similar experiences when I go back to South Africa in a couple of weeks.


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