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date: 06 July 2022

Sociolinguistics and Social Activism

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the history of social activism in sociolinguistics, with a particular focus on efforts in the United States. It exemplifies ways that the study of sociolinguistics is critical for increased social justice and social change, and demonstrates how sociolinguistic models might better reflect a social justice framework if they are co-constructed by linguists and the communities in which they learn and teach. At the heart of a linguistics-centered social justice framework is the most basic right of a speaker: the right to speak his or her language of choice at all times. Sociolinguistics has made great advances in helping to demonstrate the links between language use and social justice across racial and cultural groups.

Keywords: sociolinguistics, US social activism, social justice, social change, language discrimination

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.

—Cesar Chavez (1984)

This chapter examines the history of social activism in sociolinguistics, with a particular focus on efforts in the United States. Given the essential sociolinguistic premise that language is fundamentally a social action, sociolinguists are in a unique position to help scholars and practitioners across disciplines research issues that intersect with the societal consequences of language behavior and language policy. As such, I exemplify ways that the study of sociolinguistics is critical for increased social justice and social change, and demonstrate how sociolinguistic models might better reflect a social justice framework if they are co-constructed by linguists and the communities in which they learn and teach. Through such co-construction, sociolinguists might better exemplify Bolinger’s definition of the socially minded linguist as “one who works to inform the public about linguistics with a mind to curbing the use of language as a one sided instrument of power” (1979: 407).

Sociolinguistics as a discipline has been served by the examination of not only language change and its social correlates, but also by the complimentary (p. 813) examination of social change and the interaction of language in both macro and micro social processes. Social justice–based frameworks of research and action fit naturally into the sociolinguistic model, as these frameworks call for respect and rights for every person and for a thorough respect for justice in all aspects of society (Skutnabb-Kangas 2009). At the heart of a linguistics-centered social justice framework is the most basic right of a speaker: the right to speak his or her language of choice at all times.

Language discrimination is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination (Lippi-Green 2011) and has frequently been used as a way to discriminate against individuals and groups of people without overtly judging their inherent being, despite the fact that Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion, national origin, race, color, or sex. Lippi-Green challenged linguists not only to affirm the languages that speakers use but, more importantly, to affirm the rights of the speakers to speak them. Otherwise, nonstandardized languages and language varieties and their speakers are relegated to positions of novelty and/or subordination rather than affirmed languages of status.

Macrolevel language policies have been used as a way to justify social and political divisions and to force speakers of nonstandardized varieties and languages to assimilate linguistically. Phillipson (2009) noted that unresolved tensions between language and nationalism further contribute to social constructions of language and linguistic hierarchies. Sociopolitical situations surrounding language rights often strongly correlate with access to literacy and education. For example, Slave Codes forbade the promotion of literacy among enslaved African Americans in the United States (Baugh 2000), and the struggle toward literacy among many Americans from the African Diaspora continues today (Rickford 1997). Struggles for civil rights that include linguistic self-determinism are still active around the world and in the United States, as exemplified by Arizona’s proposed restrictions on teachers with accents, coupled with restrictions on what can be taught in classrooms (Linguistic Society of America 2010). The use of standardized testing to uphold the model of the U.S. meritocracy is a prime example of linguistic discrimination (Charity Hudley & Mallinson 2011; Hoover, Politzer, & Taylor 1995).

Crucial to positioning sociolinguistics in a social justice framework is knowing who the speakers and the researchers studying them are. Much sociolinguistic theory has centered on speakers of nonstandardized varieties of language. Baker (2010a, 2010b) examined how early anthropologists and linguists set the tone for who was worthy of linguistic study and why. Baker examined linguistics’ early roots in anthropological models that privileged the examination of Native American language and culture over African American language and culture along an imagined continuum of exotification and othering:

Beginning with Lewis Henry Morgan through John W. Powell and Frederic W. Putnam, and then continuing with Franz Boas and his students, the (p. 814) primary focus of academic anthropological inquiry in the United States was American Indian languages and customs. It was not until World War II that anthropology in the United States did much else. In the timeless words of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “the ‘scientific’ study of the Savage qua Savage became the privileged field of academic anthropology.” Anthropologists got the savage slot, and continued to fill it with descriptions of out-of-the-way others. (Baker 2010a)

Although hints of those early models still exist within both sociolinguistics and anthropology, sociolinguistics has made great advances in helping to demonstrate the links between language use and social justice across racial and cultural groups. Baker (2010a) noted that, in contrast, sociology “described in-the-way others, and focused on recent immigrants and African Americans; they rarely focused on American Indians. In general terms, sociologists were used to support broader ideas of cultural assimilation, while anthropologists were used to support ideas of cultural preservation and conservation.” Across the social sciences, this tradition of what sociologists call “studying down” still exists: scholars tend to study people in statuses that are lower than their own. With a few exceptions, including Feagin (1979) and Kroch (1995), scholars rarely study how privileged people speak from a sociolinguistic perspective.

As sociolinguistics draws on models from multiple fields including but not limited to linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, there is often an undercurrent of tension in the ways that different groups have been represented in the literature. A social justice framework helps to rectify those tensions.

Motivations for Socially Just Sociolinguistics: Funding

Although many sociolinguists have been working within social justice frameworks, a greater focus on social justice in research priorities, even among those who study nonstandardized speakers, is still needed. For example, Rickford (1997) stated that while sociolinguistics has drawn heavily from African American communities, the return benefit to communities has been low. Sociolinguists can become even more socially engaged through social service and public outreach.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), a major source of funding for linguists, has responded to these needs in research modeling and has called for researchers to devote more time to a direct commitment to the public interest. NSF proposals must include a detailed explanation of the “broader impacts” of (p. 815) the proposed research activity. Under this mandate, the NSF requires responses to the following questions:

  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?

  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?

  • To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?

  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?

  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society? (National Science Foundation 2007)

The NSF mandate asks for plans for immediate dissemination of the knowledge. This revision forces the researcher to be aware of and contemplate the relevance of the knowledge to be gained. The efficacy of and the compliance with the new broader impacts statement in linguistics research, however, have yet to be disseminated by the NSF. An attention to community needs in the design and implementation of sociolinguistic scholarship results in expanded funding sources. Many linguists have been supported by cultural and historical preservation funds as well as by funding from sources in related fields, including education, anthropology, and history.

Waves of Sociolinguistic Justice

Four waves of social justice–centered sociolinguistic scholarship have each approached calls to social justice in various ways that model and mirror changes that have occurred across academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences. The waves do not represent generations of scholars; rather, they reflect the natural and iterative progression of thought and action, such that a scholar can easily appear in all four waves of work and that scholars who remain active across a lifetime should expect to participate in three to four waves (For more information see Eckert, 2012).

First Wave: Bringing Issues to Light and Creating Theory

The first wave of sociolinguists approached sociolinguistic social justice by seeing their mission as getting ideas out into the academic and public sphere and then starting to test them through quantitative and qualitative measures. Labov (1982) recounted the education-centered motivations for his work in Harlem. (p. 816) “Deficit studies” by researchers such as Bereiter and Engelmann (1966) argued that working-class minority children begin with little or no exposure to language. Sociolinguists, including Wolfram (1969) and Labov (1972), responded to this argument by showing that language difference—not language deficit—was at the heart of language variation among speakers of nonstandardized varieties of English. The implementation of the difference framework did a great deal to eliminate paucity arguments from studies of language and culture and gave further evidence to basic linguistic frameworks that centered around the reality that most humans have the ability to speak and that no language is superior to another in either form or function.

Even among the first wave of sociolinguists, there were definitely the underpinnings of direct action at the core. The explanations of early modern linguists in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that all language varieties, both spoken and signed, were equal were acts of social justice into themselves. The U.S. Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) was established in 1959 by a grant from the Ford Foundation to the Modern Language Association at the juncture of basic and applied research to “serve as a liaison between the academic world of linguistics and the practical world of language education and language-related concerns” (Center for Applied Linguistics 2010a). CAL has sponsored many projects and programs that have had great impact in the areas of language assessment, instruction, and access. In addition, CAL has had a special history of serving refugees to the United States who are English language learners and are in a position to learn English through the Cultural Orientation Resource Center (CAL 2010b).

First wave research is still an ongoing necessity to interweave sociolinguistic theory within a more globally centered social justice framework and to examine varieties that are not as represented or studied in the literature. For example, Alim, Ibrahim, and Pennycook (2009) demonstrated the influence that hip-hop music has had on African American and global cultures and shed light on the integral nature of language and music throughout the world.

Second Wave: Finding Applications and Extending Theoretical Models

The second wave of sociolinguists tested the initial hypotheses of the first generation and expanded the social context of the sociolinguistic finding that language is both internally and externally conditioned, such that the speakers in their local contexts were examined more deeply for both linguistic and social meaning. As described in the findings of many of the chapters in this handbook, second wave sociolinguists recognized that a true understanding of social categories provides a more comprehensive set of strategies that linguists can use to bring about linguistic and social justice. As such, the second wave brought about a greater emphasis on action research.

(p. 817) Labov (1982) described the linguistic community’s commitment to the children of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The parents of the African American students represented in the Ann Arbor case sought equal educational protection under the law for their children’s use of African American English in the classroom. In describing the situation that linguists faced in the Ann Arbor trial, Labov asserted that the objectivity linguists need for scientific research may often lie in opposition to their commitment to social action. He shows how reconciliation between the linguist as scientist and the scientist as activist may occur by bringing linguistic information to communities when they need it and by being committed to use information gathered from a community for that community’s direct benefit.

Action research models integrate elements from both basic and applied research and recognize the immediacy of the need to make findings available for community use and knowledge (Gray 2009). Action research embodies a focus on simultaneous action and research in a participative manner. Research subjects are themselves researchers or are involved in a democratic partnership with a researcher, and data are generated from the direct input of the researcher and those being studied.

Research that focuses on social justice is another way to reconfigure and reconcile the basic and applied model, as all of the models are critically important for the advancement of theory and practice. Social justice research emphasizes the processes and conditions that allow for social justice and, as such, is basic, applied, and action-centered in nature. With a focus on building bridges between the traditional models, researchers who work in a social justice framework are freer to work across disciplines on social issues that are informed by both theory and process. Sociolinguistics is a natural fit for this model. Along these lines, Cameron and colleagues (1992) focused on empowerment of the communities served and not just sociolinguistic investigations of them.

Wolfram (1993 and this volume) introduced the principle of linguistic gratuity, proposing that linguists give back to the local communities where they conduct their studies. Wolfram (1998, 2000; see also chapter 37, this volume) evaluated his own public outreach measures to see in what ways efforts to give back to the local communities of North Carolina were successful or contested by local communities. Wolfram has coauthored numerous books and papers for non-linguistic readership (for examples see Wolfram, chapter 37, this volume).

As sociolinguistics has expanded its realm to include greater numbers of women, minorities, and scholars with physical differences, the focus of sociolinguists expanded as well. Rickford (1997) noted that AfricanAmerican linguists have often made homes in other departments that allow for cross intersection of the waves, especially with regard to outreach, and do not shy away from alliances with speech hearing sciences, communications, and education.

The second wave of linguistics has also demonstrated that sign language has variation just like any other language. Lucas, Bayley, and Valli (2003) demonstrated the variability in sign language, which demonstrated its (p. 818) comprehensiveness as a language and not just a finite set of signs. Baugh (2007) demonstrated that the distinctiveness of African American speech patterns and features has resulted in such discrimination as landlords denying housing to African Americans as early in the process as the initial telephone inquiries. Baugh has shown that just the way a speaker says, “Hello,” can trigger racial identification, resulting in the landlord reporting that the apartment has been rented.

Third Wave: Direct Action That Informs Sociolinguistic Theory

The increased focus on community engagement and social justice is a movement that is happening across higher education (Boyer 1990). Traditional notions of basic research as the standard measure of academic excellence are being revisited to privilege research that both expands knowledge and includes models that acknowledge that applied research does indeed influence basic fundamental and theoretical questions (Gray 2008). Applied research that addresses the improvement of the human condition is now being seen as theoretical and fundamental. New classifications from the Carnegie Foundation emphasize universities’ commitment to community engagement in addition to their research productivity.

As such, the third wave of social justice sociolinguistics expanded the social implications of the previous two waves of sociolinguistic work and is greatly adding to the dimensions of sociolinguistic activism such that it is not secondary to the research but central to the framing of key questions within sociolinguistic theory. The waves of research models are directly relevant in sociolinguistics as speakers of nonstandardized varieties help to negotiate the research priorities of sociolinguists who work with them. Granted, even traditional models set degrees of relevance based on the immediate usefulness of the information. As Rickford (1997) stated, for the benefit of speakers who are donating their time and energy to the research efforts, some immediacy of presentation of results and implications should be built into the research model. Rickford compelled linguists to improve the relationships between their universities and the communities in which they work. Labov’s current work focuses on the production of teaching materials for struggling readers in the form of a tutoring program for grades 2 to 5 and a language arts intervention program for grades 4 to 8 maybe mention what he currently stated in his recent email to you, about 90 tutors working independent of any course (Labov et al. 2010). The programs use previous sociolinguistic knowledge to help struggling readers acquire greater literacy and the project also provided for a state of the art examination of language variation in African American, white, and Latina/o children in different areas of the United States.

(p. 819) Recent work in ASL, where the white Deaf community has been extensively studied, focuses on the understudied African American signing community (McCaskill, Lucas, Bayley, & Hill 2011). The information drawn from this work greatly informs the community and the interpters and others who serve them. Charity Hudley and Mallinson (2009) showed that the linguistic features that educators are concerned with at school are not always ones that have drawn the most interest from linguists, but they greatly affect students’ assessment. Skutnabb-Kangas and colleagues (2009) put together an edited collection that worked to re-frame language and education policy through a social justice lens. It was one of the first texts in sociolinguistics and language policy to take that approach. The editors situated the text at the intersection of education, opportunity, and politics on a global scale, and through the case studies in the book, they wished to demonstrate how using several languages can contribute to social justice.

Batibo (2009) and Brenzinger (2009) addressed how poverty affects language survival and how differential access to economic resources is most often the fundamental determinant of language shift and language death. Along these lines, Magga et al. (2005) highlighted the inequalities that dominant language–medium instruction create. They showed how dominant language instruction prevents access to education because of linguistic, pedagogical, and psychological barriers; leads to language extinction; and does not present any method by which break the cycle of poverty created by lack of literacy and education. In this sense, the notion of linguistic genocide extends not just to death and physical injury based on the language that someone speaks but also to mental harm and detriment or destruction of the language among speakers. More needs to be done in sociolinguistic research lines to extend notions of linguistic insecurity and discrimination to focus on the actual harm done to speakers minority languages and language varieties.

What is critical in all of these models is that sociolinguistics is kept central in these larger conversations of social inequality; for sociolinguists of the fourth wave, this will be a continued component of sociolinguistic social justice work.

The Fourth Wave: The Scholarship of Dissemination

Across academia. Labov’s principle of debt incurred applies not just to those outside of the field, but also to the future members of the field (Labov 1982). The greatest benefit of sociolinguistic research thus far has been to students of sociolinguistics: those who stay in the field of sociolinguistics, but more importantly, those who go on to influence society in a myriad of ways and who take their sociolinguistic information with them.

Many schools of education have relationships with local public schools that service-learning courses may be able to partner with. It is important to examine our own campuses to discover answers to the following questions:

  • What is taught to linguistics students about education, culture, and diversity?

  • (p. 820)
  • What is taught to education students about language, culture, and diversity?

  • What is taught to everyone else?

The answers to such questions call for cooperation across disciplines, excellent teaching and advising, and collective responsibility for sociolinguistic information outside what can be seen as the realm of sociolinguistics.

Service learning is a teaching and learning method that intentionally integrates academic content and learning objectives with projects designed to support and enhance the good of a specific community. The Corporation for National and Community Service describes service learning as a method of teaching where students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized community service. The service experience is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the student. Service-learning courses provide structured time for the students to reflect on the service experience as it relates to their coursework, personal development, and civic involvement (Corporation for National and Community Service 2010). Service learning as an extension of collegiate volunteerism is an upward trend. At least a quarter of all higher education institutions and more than half of all community colleges have adopted service-learning programs (Corporation for National and Community Service 2010).

On campuses, service learning–based courses and community-based research present further venues for integrating sociolinguistic knowledge, research opportunities, and educational outreach in a range of different communities. Through community-based courses and community research, students and scholars have unique opportunities to connect academic learning and research with community needs, carrying linguistic knowledge back into schools and communities. Service learning is a way to make action a crucial component of linguistics as the study of people and their language is no longer confined to the classroom or the field researcher. Service learning is greatly beneficial to speakers from communities that sociolinguists have traditionally researched as well as for majority students who seek to learn more about communities that are not their own. García (2009) noted that the social justice principle of linguistics values the strength of students and communities and enables the creation of learning contexts that are not threatening to the students’ identities while maintaining academic rigor (see Skutnabb-Kangas 2009).

Scholarly. It is critical to examine the practices of organizing bodies within sociolinguistics, including the funding sources, journals, and conferences that maintain the scholarship in the field. Journals such as Linguistic Compass and magazines such as Language Magazine serve to make research in sociolinguistics more accessible to a greater audience.

Off-campus. Rickford (1997) argued that the relationship between linguist and studied community is still not equal, as linguists benefit more directly and (p. 821) expediently from the research they conduct in communities than do the communities from linguistic research. Rickford (1997) challenged linguists to improve the relationships between themselves and the communities in which they gather information. Eleven years after Rickford, Queen, and Baptista (2008) stated that “in spite of these efforts, though, linguists have not achieved the desired impact on public understanding about the [language] variety or about its complex relationship to other languages and varieties of English.” Sociolinguists are faced with questions as to how to disseminate all that we have researched and learned when met with the basic reality of the linguistically uninformed teacher, speech hearing scientist, psychologist, or school counselor.

While crucial information has been gathered by sociolinguists, the information often needs to be disseminated many times and in different formats in order to reach each generation of students and communities. Along these lines, Queen and Baptista noted:

We believe linguists should do more to reach out to African American communities and to include working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class communities in our efforts to explain the benefits of a less prejudicial approach to AAE. Thus, in addition to our ongoing efforts to educate college students and public school teachers and students, we should also begin to promote a linguistically and socio-politically oriented approach to AAE in the very communities where its varied speakers live. (2008: 187)

Charity Hudley and Mallinson (2009) described the dissemination of linguistic knowledge in the professional development of teachers, where contrastive analysis (of African American English vs. standardized English) plays a major role. Taking lessons from the challenges presented in the Ebonics Debate (Baugh 2000), it is important to take notice of changes that have taken place in the school environment that might make contrastive analysis more acceptable as a teaching strategy but that also open the door for other discussions about language and multicultural education to take center stage in classrooms and other pedagogical settings. Charity Hudley and Mallinson (2010:254) presented a linguistic awareness model that is designed to facilitate the sharing of knowledge about language variation between researchers and community members:

  • to partner with community members, particularly in underserved areas where universities may not already have such partnerships, including K-12 schools and others who provide for the educational, social, and health welfare of the community;

  • to communicate sociolinguistic information about language variation to community members in ways that are effectively tailored to their skills and their needs;

  • to disseminate accurate linguistic knowledge to community members, both to train them in the science of linguistics and to help them better serve dialectally diverse students;

  • (p. 822)
  • to assess the results of providing linguistic information to community members; and

  • to apply these findings to public policy and social justice models.

Charity Hudley and Mallinson contended that more effort and energy should be spent on disseminating relevant information that has already been gathered about language variation, particularly when integrated with existing literature from education, sociology, psychology, and other related fields. It is crucial that researchers share knowledge while also adding to this body of information by continuing to document and analyze how language variation interacts in real-world educational settings, within the contexts of local communities. Linguists and related scholars should also be more involved in creating easy-to-implement and realistic language-based strategies to help educators and students facing larger social and educational issues. These strategies must both be linguistically and educationally informed; that is, they must be oriented toward helping students understand sociolinguistic concepts, and they must be practical enough to be implement in everyday settings.

At the January 2010 American Dialect Society Conference held in Baltimore, Maryland, a special panel session was held that was sponsored by the American Dialect Society Committee on Teaching. Entitled “Cultivating Socially Minded Linguists: Service Learning and Engaged Scholarship in Linguistics and Education,” the panel session brought together linguists and practitioners who have implemented service-learning projects related to language and education in various forms including:

  • models for an introductory undergraduate linguistics course that includes a service learning component on African American English (Charity et al. 2008);

  • partnerships in Texas and Oklahoma that pair students with community agencies to serve nonnative English–speaking community members and Native American language communities (Fitzgerald 2009);

  • an investigation into the effects of service learning on linguistically and culturally diverse college students enrolled in a first-year composition course, finding that nonnative English–speaking students may expect and gain more from service-learning activities than native English–speaking students (Wurr & Hellebrandt 2007).

As these projects demonstrate, engaged scholarship takes a wide variety of forms, and many practical challenges related to education can be addressed by applying linguistic knowledge to address community and educational needs.

The public at large. Deborah Tannen has brought sociolinguistic ideas to a larger public. Tannen (1990), which provided a public framework for communication issues about language and society that other scholars can model to share ideas with the greater public, has sold several million copies. Sociolinguists have participated in several popular video and television projects, which can (p. 823) be used to inform the public about key concepts, including American Tongues (Alvarez & Kolker 1988), Do You Speak American? (see Reaser & Adger 2007), and the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP). In What’s Your Sign For PIZZA: An Introduction to Variation in ASL, Lucas, Bayley, & Clayton Valli (2003) present information in accessible language with an accompanying DVD with signing and voiceover. Walt Wolfram has set an excellent example for graduate student–level community involvement through the NCLLP (NCLLP n.d.). Kirk Hazen has followed that model with the formation of the West Virginia Dialect Project (2012), which is designed to conduct research on language variation to be used for educational purposes. Barbara Johnstone and Scott Keisling created a similar outreach page in the Pittsburgh Speech and Society Project (2008).

Sociolinguists have also appeared in the media to comment on linguistic issues. Controversies over federal investigators seeking Ebonics translators have re-sparked debates about African American English (see Cratty, Hayes, & Gast 2010) while the need for more translators in courtrooms remains an issue across languages as in the case of the State of Maryland v. Mahamu D. Kanneh, No. 94, September Term, 2007.

Sociolinguists on Facebook and Twitter provide sociolinguistic information for a wider audience than academic writing and conferences allow for (for a list of linguists on Twitter, see Twitter 2010). The Language Log Blog (2010) has a large following that has caused the authors to write a book based on the posts. Ben Zimmer writes “The Word” column for the Boston Globe, and New York University hosts a blog about African American English at: It is also critical to note that many lay readers turn to Wikipedia for information, so it is important to monitor the sociolinguistic information on the site for accuracy and completeness.

The Challenges of Community Co-construction

Advocating for a community instead of with a community may not be a situation that sociolinguists create on purpose. Rather, it may come about as a result of community members’ own concerns or actions. Community members may not want to jeopardize relationships with the universities or community foundations with which the sociolinguist may be working, or community members may hope for other benefits by working with the linguists, and some community members may have unarticulated concerns but, due to the position of power of the linguists, may have a well-founded fear of not saying no to their intrusions into their communities.

(p. 824) Blommaert and Jie (2010) extended the co-construction model and stated that when working in communities, language as a social construct should be constantly reexamined. Bloomaert and Jie assert that concepts such as “English, French, and Chinese” are “folk ideologies that are popularized by institutional discourses,” and that these concepts should be salient as objects of sociolinguistic inquiry rather than be taken for granted as the basis of accepted linguistic theory.

It is important that the goals of the sociolinguist (i.e., to preserve a language or language variety or to show how some linguistic ideologies are less desirable than others based on linguistic theory) are not imposed on the community even when the sociolinguist has the best intentions. Dobrin, Austin, and Nathan (2007) argued that endangered languages have become commodified outside of the purveyance of the community. Hinton (2002: 151–52, as cited in Dobrin et al. 2007) modeled the challenges of linguistic objectives as follows:

As an outsider, I would feel very uncomfortable if I were to advocate to a speech community that it ought to try to keep its language alive. It is entirely up to the community or to individuals within a community as to whether they want to put in the effort to develop new speakers for their language. Community members have the right to advocate within their community for the survival of their language; someone from outside the community does not. The right to language choice includes the right to choose against a language. This is the logical result of believing that maintaining an indigenous language is a matter of human rights, a belief virtually all language advocates must share. The outside expert’s role is to assist in providing the means for language survival or revival to motivated community members and perhaps to provide encouragement and a sense of hope that it can be done.

Hinton’s model exemplified the type of co-construction that is needed throughout sociolinguistics in order for the next wave of scholarship to advocate not for languages but with communities.

Community-based research practices are also crucial to the methodological outcomes of those who are dedicated to basic sociolinguistic research. Wiley and de Klerk (2009) emphasized the importance of listening to youth as participants, not only in research, but also in the way that the research questions are structured and framed. Wiley and de Klerk recounted studies in indigenous communities where educators reported that they didn’t hear indigenous languages used. Youth in the communities, however, reported vibrant use of language outside of the educational context. Wiley and de Klerk noted that the point of view of the person being interviewed is crucial to how language is used and in what contexts. Moreover, the students most often reported “speaking their culture” instead of just “speaking their language” (Wiley & de Klerk 2009: 136). Indeed, co-construction of models will challenge frameworks that center on one or a few sociolinguistic variables alone as driving forces in sociolinguistic speech communities and will call for work that examines complete linguistic and social systems. Such work will be a formidable task but will prove to drive both the practical and theoretical models presented in sociolinguistics thus far.

(p. 825) The Co-construction of Ethics

The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) approved an ethics statement in 2009 that calls for a greater recognition of the direct implications of linguistic research. The LSA’s statement on ethics incorporates many of the concepts of community- and social justice–centered research.

Other communities are eager to share their knowledge in the context of a long-term relationship of reciprocity and exchange. In all cases where the community has an investment in language research, the aims of an investigation should be clearly discussed with the community and community involvement sought from the earliest stages of project planning. (LSA 2009: 3)

Ethical considerations should also advise the way in which research is conducted with a mind toward how it is disseminated by researchers and others. The LSA ethics statement supports such considerations as follows:

  • Linguists have a responsibility to consider the social and political implications of their research.

  • Linguists should make the results of their research available to the general public, and should endeavor to make the empirical bases and limitations of their research comprehensible to nonprofessionals.

  • Linguists should give consideration to likely misinterpretations of their research findings, anticipate the damage they may cause, and make all reasonable effort to prevent this. (LSA 2009: 4–5)

Rice (2006) noted that there has not much discussion in linguistics on ethics until very recently. Great care needs to be taken so that every sociolinguistics student receives protocols about standards within the discipline as well as the guidelines set by the LSA and each university’s internal review board.

Greater ethical considerations would take into account how communities are entered and represented. Sociolinguists have used various methods to enter a community, from finding a local connection to entering through school systems or other large organizations.

The amount of due diligence a researcher has to do when attempting to represent a social and linguistic model of a community must also be of concern. There have been very few sociolinguistically informed full-scale samplings of communities due to the time and money needed to acquire large amounts of sociolinguistic information. But there is a danger in representing a class, race, or gender of a community based on very few samples. Even when smaller communities are represented, the researcher must be very specific in any report made about the size of the sample, not only in the demographic information, but also in how the title and other information about the study represent the research.

Sociolinguists also have a direct responsibility to ensure that communities are fully aware of the results of research. Academic papers should aggressively (p. 826) be made available to communities in which the research was conducted, as these are often difficult or impossible for many community members to access. In addition, research debriefings must not only take the form of academic papers but should also include talks in communities and websites that present information that is tailored to the linguistic and literacy needs of the participants (e.g., given at appropriate reading or comprehension levels).

It is also important to analyze the full spectrum of what a community gains, both short term and long term, when a sociolinguist enters a community to do research and, later, when that research is disseminated to a larger audience. With each new research endeavor, it is important to map out what status or opportunities the researchers gain as a result (e.g., publication, funding, awarding of a degree or tenure that then leads to further opportunities and income) and what the community gains (e.g., benefits from grant money, help with immediate or long-term social needs).

A crucial question, then, is what greater gains for the community could sociolinguists help to provide? Such gains might include better access to education or equitable funding for the time that researchers spend in a community, rather an abstract promise of future benefits from the research as a form of gift in kind. It is also critical to think about what a community risks (i.e., privacy, losing ownership of intellectual information) when undertaking research with an outside researcher. Even researchers with the best of intentions who have successfully passed the internal review procedures at their university put the anonymity of communities and community members in jeopardy, run the risk of having the linguistic and cultural information gathered taken out of context, and may bring about (among other things) ridicule due to the public nature of the dissemination. Even community members who are willing to take risks due to the potential gains from the research may not foresee what the information could come to symbolize once it is out of the community’s hands.

Social Justice as an Interdisciplinary Necessity

As demonstrated in this chapter and in those in this volume by Wolfram (37), Romaine (38), and Grenoble (39), sociolinguists are in a unique position to help scholars and practitioners across disciplines research issues that intersect with the societal consequences of language behavior and language policy.

Future sociolinguistic work is best done on teams that include sociolinguists as well as scholars and activists from related disciplines, including but not limited to sociology, psychology, anthropology, education, law, government, ethnic studies, speech hearing and communication sciences, and medicine. (p. 827) Many scholars who work in linguistics and education have been instrumental in bringing linguistic insights to major organizations such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Teaching of English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL)/Teaching Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) communities.

Mohanty (2009) noted several international organizations that have heralded one’s choice of language use as a basic human right and thus related to issues of everything from international relations to health. He cited UNESCO, UNPFII, and the UN Human Rights Council’s Minority Forum as organizations that have set policies in place which the nation must now follow. Mohanty’s descriptions mirrored efforts that have been highlighted in the U.S. sociolinguistics literature to produce proclamations on issues including the Ebonics Debate and the right of first nations to speak their own languages.

Nonetheless, it is alarming how often discussions of language are missing from the actual practices designed to mitigate social inequality in education, psychology, and sociology. Banks (2011) asserted, however, that it is easier for institutions and policy makers to state that students should have the right to speak their own language than it is for educators and administrators to make the broad policies a reality. Right now there are few guidelines on how to implement the idealistic policies of student rights in actual classrooms.

As Baugh (2000) described, no linguists served on the Oakland School Board’s African American Education Task Force although linguist Ernie Smith was consulted and influenced the statement that Ebonics was not English. Despite the linguistic inaccuracy, Oakland was at least attempting to address the crucial, long-standing issue of dialect differences in the school system. A considerable amount of writing after the Ebonics debate was devoted to misunderstandings about what the educators and linguists who came to their aid were trying to say, yet with concentrated help from linguists working within the school system, the misunderstanding and backlash that ensued might have been different.


Shuy (2003) reported on the personal and intellectual decisions made by leaders in the field about the direction of sociolinguistics and what would be considered sociolinguistics. Future work must include a critical examination of who exactly gets to decide what sociolinguistics is among the next generation of scholars and how that definition is co-constructed between sociolinguists and the communities in which they teach and learn. Questions that are framed (p. 828) and asked in ways that directly benefit both the sociolinguists and those in the community who make such knowledge possible allow for greater creation of knowledge with a purpose for common good.

Through a continued dedication to the ways that sociolinguistic research can best contribute to social change and social justice, sociolinguists may best meet the charge of Bolinger (1979) charge to keep socially minded linguistics at the root of the sociolinguistic mission. There are several concepts that are key to both community engagement and sociolinguistic research: that we listen carefully, listen well, seek to understand, and then act.


This work was supported by the NSF under awards #9030522 and #0512005 and the William and Mary Professorship in Community Studies. I would like to thank Ms. Melissa Hogarty, Drs. Christine Mallinson, Monica Griffin, Regina Root, Joel Schwartz, and Kelly Whalon, as well as my linguistics and community studies courses: Introduction to Community Studies, fall ‘09 and ‘10; Language Attitudes, spring ‘09; Methods in Community Studies, spring ‘09; and Swahili Language and Culture, summer ‘10 for their discussions and feedback about the paper. Some of the material in this article is based on Charity (2009) and Charity Hudley and Mallinson (2010).


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