Language Socialization

Kathryn Howard

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online November 2014 | | DOI:
Language Socialization

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Language socialization research investigates how the processes of linguistic and cultural development are interlinked, and how these processes vary across cultural contexts. This work aims to illuminate how children and other novices come to master the situated discourse practices of their communities, through longitudinal, ethnographic inquiry featuring detailed analyses of their social interactions with more expert community members in socially and culturally significant activities. Intertwined with such practices are not only linguistic and grammatical forms of language that both reflect and create the social order, but also group- or community-specific ways of engaging in situated and embodied communicative practice, and broader community values, beliefs, and ideologies. Hence, language socialization researchers emphasize how novices are simultaneously socialized “into and through” language and discourse; that is, how they are socialized “into” specific uses of language or other semiotic devices, and “through” language/discourse to become familiar with their community’s ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. This field of scholarly inquiry initially arose in reaction to the failure of cognitive or structuralist conceptions of language to account for (a) the role that language and discourse play within social and cultural transmission, and (b) the role that sociocultural context plays in children’s language acquisition. Drawing upon and paralleling functionalist approaches to language at the time, Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin’s early research project in two distinct non-Western societies challenged the notion that language development could be understood as a purely mental, automatic, or universal process independent of the social and cultural settings in which it takes place. For example, their essay “Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories” (Ochs and Schieffelin 1984, cited under General Overviews) showed that baby talk—a simplified and/or exaggerated style of speaking with young children—is not a universal feature of mother-child interactions, thus showing that this form of linguistic accommodation could not explain language acquisition, as some researchers had thought. Their research showed that the path of children’s language development, the roles that children played in early interactions, and the types of language or discourse to which they were exposed varied widely across cultures. Shirley Brice Heath’s early work also investigated the culturally variable nature of language development in her longitudinal, ethnographic study of families’ linguistic, discursive, and literacy practices in three ethnic- and class-differentiated communities. Since that time, the field of language socialization has expanded in new directions, while also maintaining a firm commitment to investigating the process by which linguistic, discursive, and literacy practices are maintained, contested, and transformed in cultural groupings of many different scales, from families, to educational institutions, to professional communities, to societies and beyond. At the same time, research in this field has followed trends in anthropology more generally to interrogate the very stability, sharedness, provenance, and ontology of culturally based norms and practices.

Article.  12720 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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