Sociolinguistics Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

This article provides an overview of English as a Second Language (ESL) in public schools, with special attention given to some of the sociolinguistic concerns informing ESL theory and program models. The sociolinguistic concept of communicative competence has been particularly influential in the field of ESL by shifting emphasis away from grammatical correctness and towards effective and culturally appropriate speech. Sociolinguistic findings highlighting cross-cultural differences in classroom communication have also been incorporated into recent thinking about ESL. Instructional and assessment strategies used in ESL include scaffolding, realia, and the teaching of speech acts and register variation, as well as differentiated scoring and pre-referral interventions.

Keywords Communicative Competence; Differentiated Scoring; English-Language Learner (ELL); Pre-Referral Intervention; Register; Scaffolding; Second Language Acquisition; Sociolinguistic Methods; Speech Act


Language use varies according to a wide variety of social factors, including age, gender, education, and communicative context. The study of sociolinguistics-a branch of the field of linguistics-aims to understand this inextricable connection between language and society. Sociolinguistics is a subfield of linguistics concerned with the interaction between language and society. In particular, sociolinguists study how language use varies according to a range of social variables, such as age, gender, educational level, and ethnic background, as well as according to communicative context. Recent approaches to English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction have incorporated findings from sociolinguistic research to facilitate English-language learners' (ELL) second language acquisition (SLA) and comprehension of other core subject areas.

The issue of teaching English to immigrant and other non-English speaking students has been a controversial topic among American educators, scholars, administrators, politicians, and the public for over a hundred years. Before that time, many immigrant groups offered native language instruction in community schools. With the arrival of larger numbers of, and often poorer, immigrants towards the end of the 1800s, public opinion began to embrace the notion of the "melting pot," in which newcomers were expected to abandon their linguistic and cultural background and embrace English in order to be American. Following this shift in perceptions, immigrant children typically had to undergo the submersion ('sink or swim') method of learning English by attending mainstream classrooms with no special attention given to their needs as language learners from culturally diverse backgrounds. It was a method that consistently failed these students by neglecting to provide the necessary supports for language learning and access to subject matter, and it frequently led to their premature exit from school.

During the 1960s, ESL began to develop as an independent field, in large part as a response to a 1965 immigration law that allowed for an expansion in the number and diversity of immigrants permitted to enter the US. The emphasis of the Civil Rights Movement on equality also contributed to the growth of the field. The professional organization Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) was founded, ESL materials were developed in earnest, and the number courses in ESL and linguistics increased significantly, all with the aim of providing equitable language instruction to non-English speaking students.

The 1960s also saw a dramatic change in the scientific understanding of the nature of language and language acquisition, which eventually would lead to advancements in ESL methods. Linguist Noam Chomsky published his revolutionary studies (1957, 1965) in which he argued that humans have an innate capacity for language, a capacity which allows a child to learn language by trial and error, based on comprehensible input. Soon cognitive scientists, inspired by Chomsky's theories, began to develop new ideas about first and second language acquisition. Earlier approaches considered SLA to take place through repetitive drills and rote memorization. In light of Chomskyan linguistics, however, scholars began to recognize that children's acquisition of L2, or second language, is similar in many important respects to their acquisition of L1. Thus, with cognitive language-learning mechanisms in place, L2 acquisition must also entail active engagement with learning-including making mistakes-and not just passive, repetitive exercises.

This approach to SLA offered significant improvements on earlier theories that made a sharp distinction between L1 and L2 acquisition. Yet scholars began in the 1970s and 1980s to criticize the cognitive approach for its lack of attention to the social interaction that is central to language learning. Research showed that in addition to the need for comprehensible input and learner trial and error, L1 and L2 acquisition also requires meaningful communicative interface. Wong Fillmore (1982, 1991) demonstrated that ESL classrooms in which students had the opportunity to interact with L1 and L2 speakers in socially significant ways - arguing, debating, and explaining - were more successful than less interactive and textbook-based learning environments.

Recent developments in theories of language acquisition, which look towards sociolinguistic theory, depart substantially from Chomskyan linguistics while building on ideas that emphasize the interactional context of language learning. Based initially on the influential work of sociolinguist Dell Hymes (1974), it is now widely recognized that speaking a language is as much about culturally rooted communicative competence as it is about cognitively rooted linguistic (grammatical) competence. The notion of communicative competence accounts for the fact the speakers know how to adjust their speech according to the situation. For example, one uses a different linguistic register for talking to one's friend on the phone than for speaking with the school principal. The same holds for written communication, as a student knows that he or she should write differently in a journal or blog entry than in a report on migratory birds.

ESL instruction has shifted in accordance with these changes in thinking about L1 and L2 language acquisition. Traditional approaches to ESL instruction, including grammar-translation, the audio-lingual method, and the direct method¸ reflected a lack of awareness about sociolinguistic processes in language acquisition. In the grammar-translation method, the teacher's chief role is to provide students with drills and to correct their grammatical errors. It is an approach which is concerned primarily with reading and writing rather than with speaking or listening. In contrast, the audio-lingual method puts primary focus on oral production as the first stage of language acquisition. Students spend most of their time listening to tapes and mimicking drills spoken by a native speaker. Finally, in the direct method, students interact with one another and with instructional materials in a more dynamic, less drill-oriented learning environment. The goal is for students to acquire an intuitive rather than explicit knowledge of grammatical structures. All three methods have been criticized for their failure to emphasize real-life communication. For example, students who have learned through the audio-lingual method may be able to produce phrases with near-native fluency but they may not be capable of using the phrases in meaningful interactive scenarios.

In response to the shortcomings of traditional methods second language teaching and to advancements in our understanding of SLA, educational researchers have developed new socio-linguistically-informed approaches to ESL instruction. Second language teaching has largely shifted from a focus on grammatical competence to one in which communicative competence and effective social interaction are key.

Most ESL instructors embrace sociolinguistic methods as do several major professional organizations. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) have published widely on the topic while the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) serves the interests of ELL's as well as bilingual educators. NABE also conducts lobbying efforts to secure rights and funding for ELL's and speakers of minority languages. The American Association for Applied Linguistics has a multidisciplinary orientation and is dedicated to the practical application of linguistic theory and knowledge, including SLA, language teaching, and bilingualism.


ESL Program Models

There are several basic ESL program models, each with its own set of assumptions of the nature of L2 acquisition and the place of sociolinguistics in language learning. Each model may vary greatly from setting to setting depending on factors such as state and local policy, the size and diversity of the minority population within a given school or district, and the experience of the classroom teachers. Some schools may combine models to suit ELL's with different language backgrounds and degrees of English proficiency.

At one time, pullout programs, in which a specialist in second language acquisition takes ELL students out of their mainstream classrooms for a portion of the day for English instruction, were very common. This model is problematic not only because students miss instruction in core subjects and therefore fall behind in content areas, but also because ELL's in pullout programs are often stigmatized as being in remedial classes and have a higher drop-out rate than ELL's in other programs (Thomas & Collier, 1997).

Another model is structured immersion, in which ELL's are taught content in mainstream English-language classrooms by a teacher who is trained in adapting instruction to the needs of the ELL students. Advocated by proponents of the English-Only movement, this method is particularly ineffective for younger students and students with low English proficiency (Ovando, Collier & Combs, 2003). Furthermore, because ELL students in structured immersion program often do not receive adequate language support, this method frequently results in students' exposure to a less academically rigorous content.

Currently, the most widely accepted model of ESL is content ESL (sheltered content). In this model, students learn all content in English, but through ESL methods and in a classroom consisting exclusively of other ELL's. In contrast to ESL pullout and structured immersion, content ESL programs have been effective, as students are able to learn English primarily through the authentic language of an interactive content-based classroom, rather than through language instruction alone. Teachers use instructional supports such as scaffolding and realia to ensure students comprehend the subject matter. However, most researchers agree that this method should be reserved for students who have already attained a moderate degree of English proficiency (Ovando, Collier & Combs, 2003).

More generally, the norm in ESL is a dynamic and integrative approach to language learning. In addition to ESL Content instruction, ESL teachers also team-teach and coordinate content curricula with mainstream classroom teachers. ESL professionals sometimes assist grade-level teachers in integrated ELL-mainstream classrooms.

ESL Goals

TESOL (1997) has articulated three overarching goals for ELL's in grades K-12: acquisition of competence in social language, in academic language, and in socio-cultural knowledge. Together, these goals acknowledge scientific findings about the nature of language, including that it is functional, it is deeply intertwined with culture, and that it varies systematically from person to person, group to group, and place to place.

Three standards are in place to support each goal. Grade level groups have overlapping but distinct progress indicators. For example, Standard 1 of Goal 1 (competence in social language) is "Students will use English to participate in social interactions" (TESOL 1997, p. 9). For this standard and goal, a sample progress indicator in grades pre-K - 3 is for students to be able to "offer and respond to greetings, compliments, invitations, introductions, and farewells" (p. 31). For grades 4 - 8, progress indicators include, in addition to those from earlier grades,...

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(Research Starters)

Sociolinguistics is the study of language within society. The main focus of investigations in this field is on how social factors create differences in languages and language use. As a broad field, sociolinguistics encompasses both micro- and macro-level domains. Common to both areas of investigation is the sociolinguistic quest to understand how social factors create linguistic variation. Many individual, cultural, and sociopolitical factors are recognized as creating this variation. This article gives a brief overview of the areas of investigation of sociolinguistics.

Keywords Accent; African American English; Cross-Cultural Communication; Critical Discourse...

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