Dr. Rajeev Kr. Doley

1. Introduction (Language and Social Communication)

Language is undoubtedly the most effective mode of communication among individuals and groups of individuals. A powerful emblem of social behaviour, language is used to communicate ideas and information which means that it establishes a system of links between individuals, i.e., the speakers and the hearers. Individuals form societies and therefore, language connects societies while connecting individuals. It is interesting to realize that while communicating information, the speakers send vital sociocultural messages through language, such as, who they are, where they come from, who they associate with and even what their intentions are. Therefore, language plays an important social role while transmitting information between individuals and societies. Ferdinand de Saussure’s statements that language is primarily a “social activity” and “language is socialized at every level, from the production of phonemes to the interpretation of complex meaning” in his work The Course in General Linguistics published posthumously in 1916, gave a new outlook to the study of language (Ferdinand de Saussure 2006). It discovered the inseparable relationship between language and society. According to Krishnaswami et al. (1992), “Language is essentially a social phenomenon since language lives in the minds and tongues of its users”. Communication through language, therefore, reflects a wide range of human behaviour both at the interpersonal and inter-group levels. It is being viewed and studied from different perspectives and the frontiers of the subject, therefore, are continuously and steadily moving forward. One of such frontiers is ‘sociolinguistics’, the study of language in relation to its users who live in society.

1.2  Sociolinguistics

Sociolinguistics represents the social function of a language; it shows the realities of human speech and how a dialect of a given language can often describe the age, gender, ethnicity, level of education, and socio-economic status of the speaker. The use of language symbolically represents fundamental dimensions of social behaviour and human interactions. “The ways in which language reflects human behaviour can often be complex and subtle because the relationship between language and society affects a wide range of encounters – from broadly based international relations to narrowly defined interpersonal relationships” (Wolfram  acc. 2001). Labov defines sociolinguistics as a study which takes into account “the distribution of language difference throughout the society and necessarily preserves the data on the age, sex, education, occupation, and ethnic membership of the speakers studied” (Labov 1966,). He emphasizes the centrality of social context and cognitive processes while talking of sociolinguistics. Bright describes it as “the study of patterned co-variation of correlation which exists between diverse linguistic and social structures” (Bright 1968). Fishman prefers the term “sociology of language” to “sociolinguistics” when he describes it as the study of the characteristics of the speakers as they constantly interact and change within a speech community (Fishman 1971). According to Trudgill, sociolinguistics “is that part of linguistics which is concerned with language as a social and cultural phenomenon”. He says that a study of language totally ignoring its social context will inevitably lead to “the omission of some of the more complex and interesting aspects of language and to the loss of opportunities of further theoretical progress”. He further states that “language is a very variable phenomenon, and that variability may have as much to do with society as with language” (Trudgill, 1995).

The consensus, nevertheless, is that sociolinguistics mainly deals with the following aspects: (a) language in relation to society, (b) the way language is used in different social situations and (c) the pragmatic meanings that language conveys.

2. Bilingual Communication

Bilingual communication is understood as sending of information in two languages. In making such a communication, the sender may be having equal skills in both the languages or higher in one language making it the dominant language. In multi-ethnic societies like India, the use of two or more languages while making interpersonal or intergroup communication is a common phenomenon. The bilingual or multilingual acquisition is gained mainly from two sources, viz., educational institutions and social/professional circles. Since India follows the three language policy – Hindi, English and regional language or mother tongue – the educational institutions in the country, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, are mostly multilingual. This facilitates a simultaneous and systematic learning of two or more languages. The other mode of learning the second or third language is the society itself. Through various social and professional activities, the speakers of one linguistic group learn, although at various degrees, the languages of other groups that are active in the social or professional circles. Although non-formally acquired, this form of language acquisition also gives a workable knowledge of those languages. However, both kinds of acquisition lead to the creation of a linguistic repertoire in the individuals, although with different proficiency levels, which they use under various situations and to meet various purposes.  It is a common scene that speakers in such societies use more than one language in a single communication or conversation. Researchers have termed this phenomenon as a case of code-switching. Crystal (1987) stated that code or language switching occurs when an individual alternates between two or more languages during his/her speech. The code-switching may be in varying degrees depending upon the speaker’s education, interest and general linguistic proficiency. In such a communication, the switching may take place in different forms such as phrasal, clausal or even at length in full sentences for a longer narrative.

The use of bilingual communication in India may be divided into two types, viz., formal and social. The formal form is used mainly in the educational institutions, offices of the Government of India, electronic media, some offices of the state governments and some non-governmental organizations in their campaigning activities. The social form is used in the social circles such as between friends and peers, social groups, etc. in an informal environment. 

3. Why Change Language in Speech?

Sociolinguistically speaking, the use of two languages in a single communication or conversation has two purposes : (a) to fill lexical or linguistic gap; and (b) to serve some communicative purpose. The former is used to fill an expressional vacuum as some language or words or groups of words would express a given idea in the best and most effective way than other languages. Therefore, while talking in Language A, the speaker may express some parts of the speech in Language B to convey the best possible message. The latter, on the other hand, is used to fulfill various communicative intents of the speaker. The present paper directs its attention to this form of bilingualism with a focus on the intentions and purposes behind bilingual communication among individuals and groups.

4. The Concomitant Messages

While using two languages in a speech, the speaker passes a variety of underlying meanings and messages. Although the choice of language in such an expression seems individual, it often carries a variety of symbolic socio-cultural meanings and expresses the socio-psychological values associated with the in-speech change of language. The bilingual speakers take advantage of this notion when they speak one variety rather than another in the same speech. Myers-Scotton (2006) suggested that these values mostly come from two general sources: “(a) the settings or situations in which a particular variety is habitually used in the community; and (b) how different persons use the varieties so that their use comes to reflect relationships of power or solidarity”. While using different languages or varieties, bilinguals or multilinguals produce a chain of codes, such as, from L1 to L2 and again from L2 to L3 and it goes on depending upon the repertoire of the speakers. This linguistic chain is the reflection of a chain of social relations already existing in the society. Language choice is done during lingual communication mainly to meet the requirements of different verbal situations because speakers know that certain topics are handled better and more appropriately in some language than in another in a particular situation or context. But, this knowledge of the functions of different languages is acquired from the social environs in which the speakers have been living. It is interesting to note that in many cases, the speakers are unaware of the implications that their choice of language is making.

Sometimes, the ability to change language controls the ability to change roles. In bilingual or multilingual settings, language change is regulated by stylistic considerations apart from the topic of discourse. Krishnaswami (1992) said on issue, “Some speakers acquire the habit of speaking of topic X in language A partly because that is the language in which they are trained to deal with the topic, and partly because language B may currently lack as exact and as many terms for handling topic X as language A has”. In such contexts, the speaker will use words, clauses and even sentences of language A even when their equivalents are available in language B. Some of the formulaic expressions in some language are so deeply embedded in some societies that they become part of their trait. They also observe that what we actually produce in our speech is the realization of a complex network of situationally and culturally determined choices of language (Krishnaswami et al., 1992). These choices are determined by various factors as shifts in situation require shifts in language varieties. Such activities involve socio-psychological behaviour, mood and relative social positions of the participants, the distinguishing features of the socio-cultural setting, and the topic of discourse.

In the light of the above discussion, we may now examine in the following excerpts to see the messages of bilingual communication :

4.1 Example 1

Setting: The fore court of a small roadside tea stall at village Gali in the district of Dhemaji, Assam. As usually they do, a group of people are gathered to enjoy the winter morning sun. X (name concealed to avoid possibility of derogation) is a candidate for the approaching Panchayat elections. The campaigning is at its peak and the candidates are making all out efforts to woo the voters in their own ways. While conversing with the gathering, X tries to impress upon the other participants about his ability to speak and work, in reply to a complaint from one of the public. The conversation progresses on a topic regarding the poor performance of the MLAs elected from the Mising areas. The following is an excerpt of the semi-formal conversation: 

Table- 1

Discussion : The candidate who is on his election campaign, talks mostly in Mising1 in the first part of his speech, in Sentence 1, 2, and 3, with a visible sense of patriotism and loyalty to the Mising language and culture. His apparent intention here is to project himself as a patriot, as he is generally known, because of his active association with an organization known for spearheading a series of movements for preservation of the Mising language and culture. One of the objectives of this organization is to encourage Misings to speak their ethnic language with fellow Misings instead of Assamese which is the fashion of the day, particularly, in the urban areas. But as one of the members of the public expresses his dissatisfaction over the speaking inability of those elected by them to the State Assembly in Sentence 4 and 5, he immediately begins to speak Assamese in Sentence 6 and 7 and completely switches over to that language in Sentence 8, 9, and 10. Here, apparently, his switching intends to communicate to the public that he is capable of speaking Assamese and so he will not keep silent when he is required to speak. This switching, therefore, is intended to demonstrate the language skill of the speaker.

4.2  Example 2

Setting: The drawing room of Manik Bora’s residence in Guwahati. Bora and his family are all set to go to South India on a holiday. While handing over the key of his flat to his neighbour who would look after Bora’s flat during his absence, Bora tells his neighbour that his part-time domestic help would come on alternate days to clean the house. The conversation takes place between Bora and his neighbour with the domestic help standing near them waiting for instructions on what all she has to do when her landlord will be away. It takes place in Assamese except towards its end:
Table- 2

Discussion: Apparently, the normal medium of communication between Bora and his neighbour is Assamese2. As a matter of communicative fashion, English words, phrases or sentences get inserted into their speeches in course of their communication. Bora and his neighbour include the domestic help in their discussion in Sentence 1, 2 and 3. But, in Sentence 4, 5 and 6, they exclude her from the discussion as they do not want her to understand this portion of their speech. The message here is that generally under the present social system, a person of the maid’s stature would not understand English and therefore can be excluded from a discussion by switching over to that language. The switching of language also sends a message that the trustworthiness of this group of people is low as in the prevailing social belief.

5. Conclusion

The use of bilingualism or code-switching by a person may appear to be an individual activity, but, in effect, it reflects a situation which is far beyond the individual’s domain. Since languages live in the tongues of their users who live in a given society, they are social systems and must be seen not merely as sets of sentences but as social formations cutting across various communities and cultures. As Krishnaswami et al. (1992) viewed language “as a system of communication, as an interactive process, as a tool by human beings in a variety of contexts, and as an interpersonal and socio-cultural activity”, it is evident that language plays a significant role in the maintenance of various human relations and behaviour at the individual level as well as societal level.
Code-switching or language alternation during in-group communication is a regular phenomenon in societies where more than one linguistic group live like those in India. Apart from using L2 or L3 as fillers of linguistic gaps, the speakers also exercise language alternation to fulfill their various communicative intents and verbal strategies and thereby send various messages of individual and social behaviour. These messages are significant indicators of individual and social relationships prevalent in a given time which form the basis for future social change. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that researchers go further in to their investigations to find not only the deeper meanings of people’s behaviour prevalent presently, but also to perceive the future courses that such behaviour may contribute to.  

  • Carol Myers-Scotton (2006). “How Codeswitching as an available option empowers bilinguals.” In Along the routes to power: Explorations of empowerment through language, M. Putz, J. A. Fishman, and J. Neff-van Aertselaer (ed), pp. 73–84. Berlin/New York : Mouton de Gruyter.
  • D. Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 
  • Ferdinand de Saussure. Wikipedia, the free, p.2 encyclopedia. (Accessed December 3, 2006)
  • J.A. Fishman (1971). “Sociology of Language”. in J. Fishman (ed) Advances in the Sociology of Language, Vol. 1, The Hague : Mouton. Pp. 217–404.
  • N. Krishnaswami, S. K. Verma and M. Nagarajan. Modern Applied Linguistics. Madras: Macmillan India Limited, 1992, pp.15, 13, 42 &46.
  • Peter Trudgill (1995). Sociolinguistics – An Introduction to Language and Society. Middlesex : Penguin Books. First published in Pelican Books, 1974.
  • W. Bright (1968). “Social Dialect and Semantic Structure in South Asia” in M. Singer and B. Cohn (ed) Structure and Change in Indian Society. New York : WGFAR, pp.20 - 21.
  • W. Labov. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington DC : Centre for Applied Linguistics, 1966, p.25.
  • Walt Wolfram. “Sociolinguistics”. LSA Fields of Linguistics, p.1. (Accessed September 27, 2001).
About the author: The author, Dr. Rajeev Kr. Doley is serving as Director, Centre for Inclusive Development, Tezpur University, Tezpur, Assam. Initially, he served as Lecturer, Department of English at North Lakhimpur College, Lakhimpur. Later on he joined as Assistant Registrar, IIT, Guwahati. He is also closely associated with cultural and literary activities including cinema and publications. He played the role of Jonki in Miri-Jiyori, an Assamese film directed by Dada Saheb Phalke Awardee Dr. Bhupen Hazarika through which he became the first film hero of the Mising Community. Further, he played several roles in more than twenty Mising and Assamese productions. He has three books and 14 research papers published in peer-reviewed journals.

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