How is Sociolinguistics studied?


1. General facts about the study of sociolinguistics

  • There are two approaches to the study of sociolinguistics – ‘micro‘ and ‘macro‘:

Competence vs. Performance

  • Sociolinguistics focuses on ‘linguistic performance‘.
  • It is studied in relation to the actual language that is produced and the way it is used in its wider social context.
  • As a fairly new discipline, areas of inquiry in the past primarily studied language in relation to ‘linguistic competence‘.

2. Methods and Applications

The focus for a linguistic study must have a purpose and that purpose must be to answer a particular linguistic or social question. The way in which it is studied is through sociolinguistic theory and linguistic data, however any conclusions that are drawn from this must be based on empirically tested evidence to be of any sociolinguistic significance.[1]

So, how do sociolinguists collect speech data for scientific and empirical analysis?

Ethnographic Observation (Interactional):

Fieldwork conducted within a community to study the linguistic behaviours between different cultures and social groups through observation and interpretation by which a recording device is used to document the findings. This type of observation strives to collect natural speech data and uncover what social factors may influence it e.g., age, gender, social class, ethnicity etc. Language can be extremely dependent on social context for example we manipulate our speech depending on the receiver, so in other words we wouldn’t speak to our manager or work colleague in the same way we might talk to a friend or family member.

However, one problem in trying to elicit natural speech data when they know they are being observed is labelled ‘observer’s paradox’ which refers to the presence of the observer affecting the language produced; the speaker may become self-conscious which raises the question, how natural is the speech data? One way to overcome this problem is by conducting research using the sociolinguistic interview developed by William Labov.[3]

The Sociolinguistic Interview (Variationist):

This sort of methodology is used to collect different styles of speech in the format of an interview. Examples of speech data are elicited by either reading a passage, reading a word list, reading minimal pairs or through an emotionally driven interview.[3]

Participants are generally less self-conscious and pay less attention to their speech when they become involved in an emotionally engaging narrative. They become so immersed in the content of what they are saying they almost forget that they are being observed therefore producing more natural spontaneous speech for example “Have you ever been emotionally, verbally or physically attacked?”

  • Statistics and Questionnaires

Statistics enables the researcher to quantify masses amounts of data and find out what they mean by using numbers.[2] An understanding of statistical depends on four notions:

  1. Population: This is also referred to as a sample which consists of people that are important to a researcher based on some quality, which is usually a demographic quality such as gender, age, ethnicity etc.
  2. Characteristic: Some sort of characteristic of the population e.g., linguistic diversity. Another name for a characteristic is a variable and there are two different sorts – ‘independent variables‘ and ‘dependent variables‘.[2]
  3. Quantification: This is a way of measuring the data. For example, ‘matched guise questionnaires‘ and ‘verbal guise tests‘ are helpful in finding out about attitudes towards language accent and dialect. Using questionnaires to find out demographic information can reveal patterns between a demographic value e.g., social class, gender, age etc and the variable under study.
  4. Distribution: A way of calculating an average of the measurements (scores). Descriptive statistics is useful in finding out the distributions within a set of data as it calculates the mean (adding the scores for every person within the sample then dividing it by the total number of the sample size) and the standard deviation (how the scores are positioned in relation to the mean e.g. a small standard deviation means they are close to the mean and a large standard deviation means that they are more widespread i.e. a few further away from the mean).[2]


[1] Cheshire, J., (1982). ‘Linguistic Variation and Social Function’. In: Romaine, S. (ed). Sociolinguistic Variation in Speech Communities. London: Edward Arnold Ltd. pp.153-166.
[2] Fasold, R., (1984). The Sociolinguistics of Society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Ltd.
[3] Spolsky, B., (1998). Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[4] Wardhaugh, R., (2006). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell publishing Ltd.

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.