Section I: Sociolinguistics

Sociolinguistic competence among heritage speakers of Spanish abroad: Key findings, critical gaps, and contributions to variationist theory

Kimberly Geeslin, Aarnes Gudmestad, Maria Hasler Barker, Matthew Kanwit, Avizia Y. Long, and Megan Solon


Communicative competence encompasses the ability to create well-formed utterances and to exchange meaning effectively with different interlocutors. This ability must be contextually situated, and “meaning” must include social and situational information communicated and interpreted through written, signed, or spoken language. Thus, we explore the construct of sociolingüístic competence (i.e., abilities related to producing and interpreting social information in language) and its development by heritage speakers (HSs) of Spanish in the context of study abroad (SA). Sociolingüístic competence influences a speaker’s access to input across a range of situations, shapes interlocutor expectations, reveals politeness and solidarity, expresses identity, and conveys language attitudes and social norms (see Geeslin & Long, 2014, for an overview). Though second-language (L2) learners’ development of sociolingüístic competence during SA has been widely investigated, HSs attending the same programs abroad remain understudied. Nevertheless, HSs stand to provide essential information about the role of SA (and language exposure) in patterns of use and thus warrant considerable additional attention.

Building on discussions of sociolingüístic competence, its development across learning contexts, and the skill set that HSs bring to the SA experience, we review empirical research on the development of sociolingüístic competence in the SA context. We focus our review on HSs of Spanish in the United States (US). We readily acknowledge, however, that expanding research to explore other heritage languages and/or speakers based in other regional or sociopolitical contexts (see, e.g., work by Nagy and colleagues [Lyskawa & Nagy, 2019; Nagy, 2018; Nodari, Celata, & Nagy, 2019] on variation in various heritage languages in Toronto or Drummond [2012] on Polish HSs in England) will only further our understanding of the complex relationship among heritage language learning, sociolingüístic competence, and SA. Examining the SA context allows us to view the influence of language exposure under specific conditions that are generally more intensive and more monodialectal than other learning contexts. Where possible, we include HS studies as we explore research on a range of languages and linguistic abilities in the SA context. With this focused review as a foundation, we generate hypotheses for HSs abroad and articulate a plan for future research. Where research is lacking, we use current knowledge about HSs to suggest possible outcomes of SA. This line of work can lead to increased understanding of (a) SA’s role in shaping language experience, (b) the degree to which changes in language-use patterns are universal, and (c) the interdependent roles of speaker-related factors, learning context, and specific structures in shaping language patterns.

Sociolinguistic competence

Sociolingüístic competence finds its roots in communicative competence (e.g., Canale & Swain, 1980: Hymes, 1972), which proposed a skill set that would give language learners the tools necessary to participate fully in an L2. Scholars concluded that learners need to do more than follow native syntax rules or use appropriate vocabulary; language must also fit the social and interactional setting. That is, sociolingüístic competence encompasses the abilities that allow speakers to interact in situationally appropriate ways. Sociolingüístic competence, then, describes language users’ ability to reflect speaker identity, to vary language patterns in response to different contexts of interaction, and to acquire and interpret geographic norms of interaction.

Sociolingüístic variation, or the variable patterns of use that occur across speakers or contexts of interaction, is an important aspect of sociolingüístic competence and is a tool for measuring language acquisition. Sociolingüístic variation provides a framework for examining differences in patterns of language use related to speaker characteristics, listener characteristics, conversation topics, and interactional contexts. Generally, variationist sociolinguists study language by calculating the frequency of a particular form or set of forms and identifying linguistic and social factors that predict usage patterns. For example, a sociolinguist might examine how frequently speakers use overt and null subjects (e.g., yo hablo vs. hablo for “I speak”) and the factors that contribute to that use (e.g., comparing first- and third-person contexts to predict different rates of overt pronoun occurrence). Because sociolingüístic variation is one important component of sociolinguistic competence, variationist research has led the way in investigating the development of sociolinguistic competence across speaker populations and learning contexts. However, we do not limit our review of previous research on situationally appropriate interaction to sociolinguistic variation: we also incorporate other research traditions, such as those focused on pedagogical interventions, language learning, and formal properties of grammar.

As we turn our attention to research on the development of sociolingüístic competence in the SA context, we underscore the centrality of this construct in learners’ language development and experience. Sociolingüístic abilities allow learners increased access to input across a range of situations, shape interlocutor expectations, reveal politeness and solidarity, express identity, and convey (and help interpret) language attitudes and social norms (Geeslin & Garrett, 2018). The benefits of SA for L2 learners in developing sociolingüístic competence are well documented for a variety of languages, and we will begin our review with a summary of key findings in that body of work. Nevertheless, HSs, who often attend the same programs, remain understudied (though see Escalante, 2018; George & Hoffman-Gonzalez, 2019, for two recent exceptions). Consequently, little is known about what types of changes (if any) occur in HSs’ sociolinguistic competence during SA, and thus our overarching goal is to highlight these gaps in our knowledge to provide directions and an imperative for future work. As we will address in greater detail later, research findings allow us to improve our curricular planning and development and, additionally, to demonstrate how this broader perspective afforded through research on HSs abroad ultimately improves the depth and versatility of the curricular interventions for L2 learners who share those programs as well.

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