The concept of language variation is central in sociolinguistics. The English language varies on individual, regional, national and global levels. Unfortunately, some people are unaware of various social and regional dialects, and different varieties of English in the world. Understanding variation within a language is important for every member of our community, and especially for those who receive a college education. Sociolinguistics investigates all these language variations.
Different factors affect how a language is spoken within a country. They can be regional (geographical), ethnic (national and racial), and social (class, age, gender, socioeconomic status and education). All these factors are interconnected. They are reflected in every language variety’s pronunciation, vocabulary, grammatical constructions and syntax.
One of the common misunderstandings of speakers of any language is the question of standard and non-standard varieties of the language. The latter is often called a dialect, and people who speak it are considered to be inferior to the speakers of the standard variety.
It is erroneous to believe that the standard variety is the ‘correct’ one. Every language has dialects, and no dialect is substandard to other dialects. We all speak a dialect and we all have an accent.
All varieties of a language are systematic in their use, have a large number of speakers and thus have their right for existence. The term dialect refers to any variety of a language, and from the point of view of sociolinguistics, all dialects are equally correct, systematic, logical, and meaningful.
The issue of standard vs. non-standard variety of a language is not a linguistic one, but political. The standard dialect is associated with prestige in the society. That is why many people prefer it to other varieties. Some people feel pressured to use the standard dialect to conform to the rules of the society. However, some speakers of a non-standard dialect prefer to use it to demonstrate their sense of belonging to their community or social/ethnic group.
Besides all these variations, there are individual variations of language use that are called idiolects. We all have unique ways of speaking that reflect our personal identities. Through our linguistic choices we have an opportunity to express who we are and where we are from. Our language changes over time as it gets into contact with various idiolects of people who we interact with. It changes with our life experiences. There are no two speakers who speak exactly the same way.
However, people are often unaware of their own dialects/accents, and sometimes they negatively judge those whose ways of speaking differ from their own. Often, people who speak non-standard dialects are erroneously marked as being uneducated, not knowing English or having a speech pathology. This can lead to discrimination in professional and educational settings, and irreversible personal tragedies.
These kinds of linguistic misperceptions are among the reasons why sociolinguistics is important to everyone in our society. People need to know more about how dialects work to avoid language prejudice.
The English language varies not only on individual and national levels but also even more on the global level. It is becoming the language of international communication and is acquiring the status of a global language. English is a major language because Great Britain and the United States have been powerful militarily, politically, and economically for the past two centuries. Crystal (2003, p. 59) observed that English received its world status due to “the expansion of British colonial power […] and the emergence of the United States as the leading economic power of the twentieth century”. It is used worldwide in such areas as business, science, aviation, music, sport, and now the Internet. In spite of its popularity in the world, we need to remember that English is not superior to other languages, and the use of other languages should be respected.
Standard American and standard British English are just two of many varieties of the language. Many other varieties of English (so called Englishes) can be found in countries across the world, as well as within each country where it is widely spoken.
Different varieties of English are used throughout the world. Kachru (1985) identified three concentric circles: (1) the Inner Circle, which includes countries where English is used as a primary language, such as the U.S. and Canada; (2) the Outer Circle, which consists of countries where English is used as a second or official language, such as India or Singapore; and (3) the Expanding Circle, which refers to countries where English is studied as a foreign language, such as Russia or China. According to Crystal (2003), non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers of English. Therefore, it is important to understand that no variety is superior over another variety, and develop an increased tolerance for all varieties of English.
The study of sociolinguistics can build people’s awareness of different varieties of English and help us become more respectful to all other languages and their dialects.
Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kachru, B. B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism. In Quirk R & Widdowson H. (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures (pp. 11-36). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.