Sociolinguistics: a new love.

The more I learn about sociolinguistics the more I realize how the value individuals place, including myself, on certain language varieties over others can seem quite superficial. Let me further explain. When I first moved to Texas I swore that I would NEVER, EVER speak like the natives: Anglo or Hispanic Texans. In my opinion, they spoke a kind of English and Spanish that seemed backwards. As the years went by my perception evolved to a more positive one due to the experiences I had interacting with the locals, but there was always some sort of reservation about their use of Spanish or English.

When I interviewed students in my class, via e-mail, I assumed that they would share similar judgments about the local use of English and Spanish due to their young age and lack of exposure to linguistics. What I learned was that only one out of the five students I interviewed found the local variety of Spanish displeasing. She said, “It often seems very informal, more slang. And it seems that since they live in America that their accents are not as smooth and fluid, but more Americanized.” What I failed to remember is that the majority of my students are from Texas! Interestingly enough, the only student that found the local variety displeasing was not from Texas. In addition, all five students believed that the most commonly used variety of Spanish should be taught in schools. For example, one student said, “…the variety of Spanish that is spoken in the local or nearby neighboring countries should be of upmost interest when trying to teach Spanish in U.S. schools because it is more likely that the students will use their knowledge of Spanish in those nearby areas.” He went on to explain that he plans on becoming a doctor and living in Houston, so learning Mexican Spanish would be most useful to him in order to communicate with his patients.

In Ronald Wardhaughs’ book, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, he states that even though there is a geographic distribution in terms of language varieties we must, “…also attempt to relate that distribution to the historical development of the language, both internally, i.e., linguistically, and externally, i.e., politically, socially, and culturally (p. 139).” In other words, in order to understand they ways and reasons why language(s) evolve we must also know how various facets of life influence those changes. This is why I think my initial perceptions about Texas Spanish and English were so superficial, and quite frankly, ignorant on my part.

All of the students I interviewed have grown up as monolingual speakers. There was one who grew up hearing an African dialect, but did not consider himself as bilingual. I started to wonder how “fully” bilingual or trilingual individuals would respond to the questions. I decided to interview a trilingual friend. He grew up speaking French and Spanish simultaneously and feels 100 % comfortable speaking both languages. He also speaks English, but learned it as “second” language. At any rate, when I asked him, what variety of Spanish or French do you find sounds/words/grammar most pleasing? He replied with, “No son palabras y sonidos. Es una cultura que va con ellas.” In other words, the reason he prefers Spanish from southern Spain or French from the south of France is because he strongly identifies with the culture. I proceeded to ask him, “Do you think you take on different identities when you speak Spanish, French, or English?” His reply was, “Cuando me sienta comodo en ingles sera mas facil para tener la misma personalidad.” He continued to explain that he maintained the same identity/personality, through and through, when he spoke French or Spanish because he feels completely comfortable speaking those two languages.

In comparison to the students’ responses when I asked, “What variety of English do you find most pleasing?” Their answers did have to do with the sounds a particular English variety emphasized. Students’ replies included:

Student A: I find the British accent to be the most pleasing of the varieties. I think it sounds very classical.
Student B: I find the British variety extremely appealing. It sounds so intelligent and sophisticated. It has a certain fluidity and softness about it.

Student C: Although I find Australian English to be highly entertaining. I prefer American slang. Hollywood rules the world.
Student D: British English is very charming to hear and the pronunciation of certain words makes the English language far more intriguing.
Student E: I find the slower, Southern US accent more pleasing than a faster northern one. Despite the common popularity of the British accent, I find it in no way superior to any other.

I think it’s interesting to note that not a single student referenced American as pleasing because they identified to the culture as did the trilingual friend I interviewed when he mentioned why he found a certain French or Spanish variety more pleasing. We can slightly infer that student c and student e may be commenting on their preference to American English because they feel a connection to the culture, but it is not stated directly.

As I mentioned earlier, society as whole, places values on certain language varieties, which in turn, influences our preferences in terms of which language variety is more pleasing. Wardhaugh reminds us that, “Value judgments of this kind sometimes emerge for reasons that are hard to explain (p. 52).” It’s true! I am less and less confused about the reservations I have had with the Spanish and English varieties I hear in Texas the more I learn about how languages and speech communities or communities of practice fit into variationist studies of language.  That being said, I think it is difficult to fully explain why I have subconsciously changed my Spanish accent or the use of certain Spanish vocabulary when I speak Spanish. Wardhaugh also explains how, “Sometimes those notions of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ solidify into those of ‘correctness’ and ‘incorrectness’ (p.53).” Maybe this is why several students preferred British English to American English.

As I continue to explore language varieties I hope to also better understand how an individuals identity evolves when s/he speaks more than one language or dialect of a language. In addition, I’d like to further explore how the political, social, and cultural climate of a community can change language, and in turn, affect how people respond to local varieties.