Wednesday, February 11, 2015

sociolx intersects the pb

This week on the pb we dive into the fabulous realm of sociolinguistics. We sit down with Naomi Nagy, professor at the University of Toronto. Her work within the variationist paradigm seeks to understand how languages do and don’t change over time, primarily by looking at languages in contact situations.

For me, two things stand out from this interview:

Throughout our conversation, Naomi places great emphasis on the value of interdisciplinary work. She discusses how the aim of her dissertation work was not only to collect data on a small, minority language, but also to make contributions to greater questions of language structure and function. She suggests that more dissertations should collaborate in different domains, being supervised by professors in different areas of expertise (for example, sociolinguistics & syntax). Naomi explores the notion of “hybrid fieldwork”, and the strengths that differing methodologies bring to addressing the same questions. Many within the field would agree with the idea of working towards more integration and collaboration across linguistic disciplines. However, serious discussions remain to be had about how to implement these kinds of projects in a sustainable way that would enable us to address the bigger questions of language and mind.

Every field has starting assumptions from which they work, and sociolinguistics is no different. Current sociolinguistic work is challenging several of these fundamental underlying assumptions. For instance, in this interview Naomi challenges the idea of viewing prototypical speakers as monolingual: most people speak multiple languages, and are therefore simultaneously members of different linguistic communities. As such, a single speaker could be progressive in their use of one language, and conservative in another. An oft-cited example of this is women’s language: a great deal of recent variationist work shows that young women are linguistic innovators in, for example, English (see this article by Chi Luu for a popular description of this phenomena). Conversely, sociolinguists who work on language contact varieties see that it is the woman’s role to maintain the heritage language and culture in the home. This leads to a tension between our conception of women as language innovators (in, for example, the monolingual, English world), and women as language conservators (in, for example, the homes of heritage language speakers). Thus follows Naomi's research question: “Are they going to innovate in one language and be conservative in the other?” This tension begins to be resolved when we take into account the bilingual nature of individual speakers.

Note: however counter intuitive it may seem to some, this work reflects another point of agreement between generative grammar and sociolinguistics: as Noam Chomsky has stressed, the idea that a speaker / hearer instantiates a single grammar is an idealization for the purposes of particular kinds of inquiry. In point of fact, a number of researchers within the generative framework maintain that real speakers extract numerous grammars from the primary linguistic data. 

So if this blog is about language & mind, how does all this talk of language variation and contact intersect with cognition? Provided the sociolinguistic effects that the field has catalogued over the past 50 years, it is possible, for example, to inquire whether individuals with (acquired or innate) cognitive disorders display the same sensitivity to sociolinguistic factors as neurotypical speakers, and how that sensitivity is expressed. Such an enterprise would be a natural extension of Eric Lenneberg’s foundational foray into language development under conditions of adversity. Stay tuned for more on this topic in upcoming posts, including our interview with Robin Queen wherein we delve into her work on language contact and variation, and explore how cognition plays a role at this intersection.

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