Sociolinguistic Competence in Foreign Language Teaching: The Secrets behind Language Grammar.


Sociolinguistic Competence in Foreign Language Teaching: The Secrets behind Language Grammar.
This paper was written in 1999 for the subject of Sociolinguistics applied to the Language Class, taught by Dr. Gerrard Mugford
University of Guadalajara, School of Modern Foreign Languages


As a field of study that involves the interaction of both language and society, sociolinguistics has contributed to help foreign language teaching achieve a greater understanding of the nature of language, as well as its manifestations, along with the understanding of the nature of society.

The idea above mentioned has implied better preparation on the foreign language teacher’s part, and a more complete and complex exposure to the target language and the evolving factors in it, on the students’ part. Nevertheless, it is important to question whether both teachers and students’ sociolinguistic competence and performance are balanced enough to determine if the people they interact, teach and learn from are salient ‘knowers’ and users of the language.

The idea of competence and performance arose as Chomsky’s generative grammar theory appeared. Chomsky defined competence as the grammar one knows without being necessarily aware of it (linguistic knowledge); whereas performance was defined as the way people use that linguistic knowledge when communicating (Coupland, et al 1997).

In terms of sociolinguistics, competence and performance could be defined as follows: Competence is the knowledge of a language grammar as well as the factors behind it (connotation, levels of formality, style, register, among others). Performance is the actual use of the sociolinguistic knowledge one possesses when interacting in society (Hudson, 1988). However, for the purpose of this paper, we will only focus on sociolinguistic competence.

How is sociolinguistics competence related to foreign language teaching?

The author believes that sociolinguistic competence enables an individual to manage and produce knowledge.

It has been said that it does not matter how well a person knows a language’s grammar, if he or she does not know how it must be used for successful communication, or how people use it in their native environment. Disadvantages between language learners and native speakers become evident when learners have only been presented with artificial, outdated situations that offer limited or null information on how the language is used at the time it is being learned. E.g. Let us consider a Spanish textbook that includes passages depicting Mexican contexts involving Nuevos Pesos (as Mexican currency was denominated after the big 1994 devaluation, while it is currently called Peso). If a Spanish teacher were to use such textbook in the present, not only would the learning environment not be current, but also irrelevant. The example above mention superficially demonstrates the information that might hinder a learners’ progress, but if one dug deeper, one might find expressions that are no longer used as well.

Grammar makes language work, but it does not provide all the meanings deposited in concepts that exists in different contexts due to different styles, degrees of formality, and language varieties (Hudson, 1988). Language is social, people form society, and it is within this system where language becomes riches, undergoes evolution and contributes to the creation of knowledge. Thus, while it might seem a rather optimistic thought, aiming a language appropriately should eventually contemplate the idea of willing to participate in the creation of new understandings within the social core of the culture where the language is spoken.

Language learners encounter fragments of knowledge at all times: every time that they learn how to state a hypothesis, a possibility and to refute a statement, for example, they are being active participants in the consolidation of the shared knowledge in the classroom. Thus, language and the act of learning a foreign language will cause learners to question their convictions and already learned information; the extent to which they use their own language correctly, and will also enable them to visualize how they can use the language they are using and their mother tongue to communicate new ideas.

Thus, in order to have successful performance, students have to become aware of the vast possibilities in which communication is taking place. Learners need to be sensitive to the contexts to which their linguistic knowledge has prepared and readied them; they have to be conscious of the potential contribution they can make by simple using language effectively; and most importantly, they must be intuitive of the ways in which one interaction will take them to a plateau where different interactions will occur. As it can be seen, sociocultural competence goes beyond grammar, connotation, levels of formality, style, register. It is neatly a power that stimulates knowledge and empowers learners to co-construct new paradigms through communication.

At this point, it is important to question how well students use the knowledge they possess; how prepared they are to embrace new knowledge; whether they can be perceptive enough to realize they have come across new knowledge; and whether the language classroom can host the production of such knowledge. The most obvious appreciation one can make is that knowledge will emerge in the environment where its structure is addressed (facts, examples, details, hypothesis, thesis, etc); and since certain language structures can directly promote addressing elements of knowledge structure (second conditional in English can be used to study hypothesis), one can logically think that a language classroom that invites and welcomes reality and information beyond the learners’ mother culture and that of the language they are learning, will certainly have scope to help students use language for greater purposes than classroom communication.

By using language as a means to communicate while exploring different scenarios, students will observe how meaning happens, how language changes to accommodate new discoveries, how language transforms according to social movements, and how language will always be ready to be a significant tool when innovating. For example, how many languages have a word for ‘software’? In Spanish we use the words as it is for there is no official term yet; how has the meaning of the word gay changed from Shakespeare’s times to the present? How will scientist name different inventions? And how will one know when using X word is no longer appropriate?

As it can be seen, consolidated sociolinguistic competence will serve as the foundation for learners to be able to change as language evolves. While it is not easy to visualize how a language’s grammar has such a strong impact on the learning of new information, one can simply see how tenses affect the information and data we acquire, which, in other words, explains how real, true information can be erroneously conveyed, hence hindering one’s quality of knowledge. Let us observe these statements where wrong grammar or a specific element of sociolinguistic competence is wrongly used:

  • Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California are part of Mexico- Correctly structured sentence but wrong fact caused by the incorrect use of the tense.
  • Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California were part of Mexico- correct statement and fact, with correct tense.
  • (To a senior professor, in Mexico, in Spanish) ¡Explica por favor nuevamente! – correct request in terms of tense and structure, but inappropriate in terms of social context, degree of formality and verb form choice. The correct form should be: ¡Explique por favor nuevamente! The use of third person singular in Spanish can be used to denote formal you – usted.

From the three examples above, while a limited appreciation, one can see how sociolinguistic competence does have a significant role in the way language is used to communicate, to interact, share and acquire new knowledge. For this reason, while interaction with native speakers might be a reliable tool that will help learners understand the way language is used in a sociolinguistically successful manner, experimenting with different situations and with a wide range of information might also help students devise means to use their sociolinguistic knowledge to fulfill the needs of the situation they are presented with.

What are the key elements a teacher should keep in mind in a foreign language class?

As discussed previously, materials specifically generated to teach a foreign language can superficially help the teaching-learning process to explore relevant and significant language use beyond the way native speakers utilize it. Likewise, it has been argued that while direct exposure and immersion in the target language can further enhance learners’ skills, it is also the quality of information being addressed what will help construct different learning scenarios where grammar structures, subject-specific terms and a wide range of structures be used in order to communicate ideas that matter.

Upon stating the above, it is important to point out that language classes based on books or with limited explorations are purposeless. It is recognized that teachers encounter several complications and difficulties when attempting to prepare a class architecture that favors the presence of those sociolinguistic elements that will allow students to become linguistically and culturally aware. It is even clear how having a native speaker as a teacher does not guarantee a fully successful exposure to all the societal and linguistic traits that can help learners develop language skills that will render interactions that will handle knowledge.

Thus, in order to transform the foreign language class into an environment where students will become acquainted with ideas and information that will enrich their backgrounds and will nurture their linguistic potential, it is important to regard the foreign language class not as the fountain from which students will drink off knowledge, but as the glass of water that will help quench their thirst. In other words, as a simple stage for students still have to test the language skills and the information they have acquired in the real world, in their own significant context, and with the people who are relevant to them. The focus, it is important to note, is that students own their language, their skills and the information they acquire and it is only them who will witness how effective their learning has been.

This paper has handled sociolinguistic competence beyond the definition initially offered. Yet, considering the elements this concept embodies, one can see how difficult and practically futile it would be to address those items (grammar, connotation, levels of formality, style, register) in isolation for it is their togetherness and intimate link what nuances language purpose, intention and meaning. Each of these fundamentals is an ingredient that contributes to the general picture of a given language, to the value system that exist in it, to the degrees of truth it handles, to the systems in which concepts are associated within it. In other words, that is why those essentials, altogether, help define language as an instrument of knowledge.

Clearly, information exists in different and diverse formats, and this represents an advantage in the foreign language class, as each of these presentations is a resource for the skills that practiced in class. For example, audio-recorded data are great exemplars for listening comprehension; historical printed documents (or newspapers) are outstanding reading comprehension; scientific and technological developments recorded in multimedia are great scenarios for oral and written debates. These examples are clear illustrations of the way language is used to study, document, question and write about the nature of our evolving society.

Examples of issues with sociolinguistic competence in the EFL classroom:

This section refers to selected samples from the most updated version of the textbooks: Interchange 3, Hotline, Challenge Intermediate, Headway Upper-Intermediate.

  • Raising Cultural and Linguistic Awareness-

Rationale: This point includes opportunities for incorporating new cultural and linguistic information into one already existing ‘data bank’. This area should explore the variety of option students are given to see how one piece of language can be used in different situations, and how a specific cultural setting can at times dictate how language must be used.

Exercises featured in Interchange 3 and Challenge Intermediate revealed a wide scope for students to enhance their cultural and linguistic awareness. The situations they present students with require learners to regard language in various scenarios, taking into consideration their own value system and that of the person depicted in the situation. Both textbooks include notes that help students take a stand on the situation, as well as information that helps them put things into perspective. Having this information at hand, help students analyze the situations, to be critical thinkers, to visualize possible problems and to devise potential solutions. In other words, the situations in these books do not underestimate students’ conception of the world and their convictions, but make room for them to strategize.

Possible improvements: both books could benefit from including some patterns that students could utilize to best structure their thoughts and ideas. When students have an idea of the range of possibilities they have to express something, it is easier for them to imagine novel ways of doing so besides what is stated in the book. We need to remember that although we handle information and knowledge, our goals as language teachers must be a priority and we must provide students with tools on how to confront an issue. If students are not given tools, their progress might ne hindered.

  • Declarative Knowledge:

Rationale: this point assumes that both teachers and students have ample knowledge of grammar and, therefore, it is constantly being tested, as it is recycled in new, multiple situations. This section also includes information that might be considered to be of common knowledge both to teachers and students, and how it is handled in the case that it is assumedly unknown to both.

The samples featured in Hotline and Challenge Intermediate recycle language progressively and introduce information from a variety of geographical latitudes. Both textbooks, in the reading tasks, start by encouraging students to think of what they would do/think in their culture, before addressing the case they are presented. Hotline does a better job when reminding students of the differences in the use and meaning of some tenses and constructions. However, Challenge contains materials in which teachers need to become informed before conducting the task. Guidelines for this are provided in the teacher’s guide, and I believe they encourage teacher to further research on the topics.

Nonetheless, if tasks were to be judged by the degree to which they promote communication, both books would be weak in this respect, for the tasks analyzed are rather controlled even when students are asked to respond to situations.

Possible improvements: Exercises should have room for students to use their creativity and to incorporate examples outside the context. The answers expected were very straightforward and, thus, did not demand students to think critically. In most of the cases, some responses could even be predicted as the grammar structures gave them away. For this reason, I think that when specific grammar structures are being practiced, books should include patterns, but should not give away so much information in order for students to have some freedom in choosing the language they want to utilize following the patterns given. Students must only be asked to combine vocabulary and structures at an initial practice stage, and should be given the freedom to explore towards the end of the lesson so that they personalize language.

  • Procedural Knowledge:

Rationale: this aspect related to the grammar and vocabulary that is presented for students to use in a spontaneous way. This item is not limited to the knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but to the resourcefulness students are able to demonstrate. Similarly, this point includes learning experiences in which students witness language variations and manifestations, and devise systems to manage them, by making choices and arranging ideas. The role the teacher plays in this case is to help students maximize the potential of a situation so that students realize their strengths. For example, if the situation addresses ‘rejecting an invitation’, teacher can prompt students to try expressing it in various contexts: a friend, a relative, their boss, the President.

The exercises presented in Headway are designed in a way that allows students to analyze a problem from various perspectives. The three exercises analyzed asked students to organize their ideas, to explore their previous knowledge on the situation, and to propose possible future circumstances where the case address could occur. The teacher guide included ample information that allowed the teacher to be more informed, and also included suggestions on how to ask students to play different roles. The teacher’s guide also pointed out certain cultural warnings that teachers should be aware of, and also provided ideas on how to tweak the situations. Students were also asked to contrast the cases, problems, and resolutions with their culture or another culture they were acquainted with. Some interesting readings were also indicated.

Possible improvements: none. I feel the design of these tasks took into consideration all teaching stages (pre, while and post), and did not underestimate students’ background. On the contrary, they made room for students to analyze the situations in the way they considered best fitted their learning style. In my opinion, this series regards learning with a holistic view, not limiting its content to language and culture but to all areas of knowledge.

  • Quality of Information and Exploration of Competencies:

Rationale: this point addresses the opportunities the exercises generate for teacher to try a wide range of strategies, not limited to one single method or approach, as well as the extent to which the information presented enriches the learning experience.

Out of all the selections, Headway was the only series that included situations where students (and teachers!) were encouraged to think outside the box. While the teacher’s guide did mention some expected answers, it also included a very thorough explanation on the possible directions the answers could take. The situations in Headway were challenging and thought-provoking and required teachers and students to think as they interacted. Responses were mostly free and spontaneous and required speakers to speak up their minds and to add justifications and details. It was also observed how students were prompted to contrast, add, refute and exemplify.

Possible improvements: Interchange 3, Hotline, Challenge Intermediate should find ways to exploit the materials they present, as it seems that they are presented barely to complete a simple task. Possibly this happens because the tasks selected belong to a stage at which students are not yet grated full freedom to interact. The above is proposed because by doing this, students would be helped to broaden their points of view, and this would give them the opportunity to use language (and to react to it) in real-life situations. Nonetheless, tasks should be designed in a way that allows some flexibility so that teachers have the choice to move them around or modify them to fit the students’ needs. The tasks in Headway can be implemented in various ways and encourage teachers to have students work on different skills.


As it was discussed at the beginning of this paper, the importance of sociolinguistic competence is not limited to the practice of structures and vocabulary in simple and complex exchanges. Sociolinguistic competence is concerned with higher thinking competencies through which students demonstrate how they can use language in and outside the classroom, and to prove how they can manage information in the target language. Most importantly, sociolinguistic competence also has a strong role in the way learners use the language they are learning to enrich the knowledge they possess.

Thus, since sociolinguistic competence offers a platform for appreciating language in its social, cultural and linguistic dimensions, its role and significance transcends its definition. This are of study, when considered, offers views and perspectives that can enable instructors to generate learning experiences that will form learners as language users who are able to use language as a tool to explore existing knowledge, to manage it and to use it to enrich their own.

For this reason, language teachers should consider the language classroom as a forum that can be enriched through the fundamentals of sociolinguistics so that students obtain the opportunity to use their linguistic knowledge and put it to the test in situations that will enrich a great number of competencies.

A language classroom will be a limited learning space if the teaching process and the teacher’s initiatives rely solely on the situations presented in the book, but if a teacher devises ways to address the salient elements of sociolinguistic competence in the classroom, his/her classes will be filled with relevance, meaning and richness in terms of explorations.

For this reason, as a conclusion, it is important to note that learning a language includes learning everything behind the language and beyond the grammar. Thus, conversely, the gradual language acquisition and development transform students into learners and modifiers of information that will inevitably gain knowledge other than linguistic for, ultimately, language, the way it is used, and how it transforms culture is knowledge that transcends a specific subject, in essence.

Coupland, Nikolas and Adam Jaworsky (1997) Sociolinguistics. St Matin’s Press: NY
Hudson, R. (1988) Sociolinuistics. OUP
Trudgill, P. (editor) (1984) Applied Sociolinguistics. Academic Press, London.



About Rafael Angel

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instructor Independent Trainer. Concept-Based Foreign Language Curriculum and Instruction specialist. Teaching and Learning Director; lives for traveling, reading, learning and tasting new flavours; culture and art lover; passionate about cinema and music. IB MYP, DP Workshop Leader. Mexican YouTuber and Soundclouder.
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