Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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Exploring languages and cultures

3.1 Language communities

As well as exploring the relationship between language and the broad categories that people belong to, such as class and age, sociolinguists have in recent years tried to capture the complexity and dynamism of people’s social lives. This has involved investigating the smaller social units they move between, and how their language and behaviour shapes and is shaped by these units. These smaller units have been categorised in various ways. One such category is the ‘community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991). As the name suggests, such a group comes together around a mutual endeavour of some sort. So, a book club or a church choir can each be described as a community of practice. These smaller groupings can easily form, change and disappear.

Activity 15

Below is a list of leisure activities. In taking up these activities, people often join like-minded individuals and form their own small social communities (clubs). Look at the list and try to decide the gender, age and socioeconomic class of people who you would expect to do these activities, then do the same with two further activities you have come up with yourself. In the box below each activity give a short profile of the most likely type of participant. The first example has been completed for you.

As with any generalising activity, there is the danger of oversimplification. However, it should become clear that the broader social categories of age, gender and socioeconomic class have some influence on the kinds of pastimes people gravitate towards.

Playing squash

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Singing in a choir

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Ballet dancing

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Being part of a book club

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Playing football

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Doing yoga

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Boxing

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Other activity 1

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Other activity 2

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Answer

There are no correct answers to this activity, as this is based on your own perceptions. Below are the responses of one British person living in the UK. Compare them and see where yours are similar or different.

Table 1

Activity typeLikely group age, gender, class
Playing squashYoung to middle-aged, both sexes but mostly male, middle class
Playing bingoMiddle-aged and older people, predominantly female and working class
Keeping an allotmentWas traditionally working class but more middle-class people are taking it up; used to be mostly male but that is changing
Singing in a choirDepends on the type of choir: cathedral choirs are often middle class, of all ages, including boy choristers; male voice choirs are typically middle-aged men; gospel choirs are often made up of people of African-Caribbean descent
Ballet dancingYoung, female and usually middle class
Being part of a book clubMiddle class, mostly female
Playing footballWas almost exclusively male and working class; now, more females are taking up the game
Playing bridgeMiddle class and middle-aged; not sure about balance of sexes
Doing yogaMiddle class and predominantly female
Racing pigeonsWorking class, male, generally of the older generation
Lawn bowlingMiddle-aged and older people, both sexes, working class
BoxingTraditionally, working class and male; however, it has been taken up by more females in recent years, as indicated by the introduction of women’s boxing competitions at the London 2012 Olympics.

Doing this exercise should highlight how much the smaller communities of practice that people choose to join are, to some degree at least, influenced by their class, age and gender. The fact that some of the activities listed (such as lawn bowling, bridge and bingo) are not international in scope shows that the nation people belong to also influences or limits their choices.

Furthermore, the typical profiles of members might be different depending on the particular context. There are, for instance, various types of choir. A typical church choir may bring to mind white, middle-class and middle-aged singers. However, you only have to think of gospel or Welsh male-voice choirs to dispel the notion that all choir members fit this profile. Remember also that communities of practice are never static and as a result, the profile of a ‘typical’ member is always evolving. For instance, in a growing number of countries, football is no longer the all-male preserve that it once was.

Of course, people can ignore social conventions when deciding which clubs and groups to join. It simply takes more courage to do so. Think for example of the film Billy Elliot (2000), where a working-class boy challenges the norms and expectations of his community in order to become a ballet dancer.

Although there may not be many explicit rules, there are often particular norms of behaviour and, indeed, ways of talking which people need to learn to become part of a community of practice.

Activity 16

Here is a letter written to an archery magazine. As you read it, think about the following questions and make notes in the box below the letter.

  • How much of it can you understand?
  • Are there words used which you either don’t know or which have different meanings to their everyday ones?
  • Why do you think these specialised meanings exist?

Reading 2 ‘Thin’ not always best

I am writing in response to a letter in the spring issue headed Time for change?

I just wanted to say that from personal experience that thinner arrows in fact do more damage to bosses than fatter arrows. During the indoor season I shot both fat arrows (Easton Fatboys) and thin arrows (Easton ACCs) both with a 51 lbs recurve and found that the thinner arrows went through the boss quicker than the fat arrows. Both sets were shot at identical new straw bosses and I found that after shooting two to three Portsmouth rounds the thin arrows were going through the boss, where as it took six to seven Portsmouth rounds before the fat arrows went through.

I have also witnessed similar results under similar conditions by an archer shooting only 28 lbs with both fat and thin arrows. The main reason for this is due to the arrow speed as the fat arrows travel more slowly and will stop more quickly. So if there was to be a change to the line cutter rule to encourage the use of thinner arrows it would, in fact, increase the damage to those expensive bosses.

David Cousins, Lizard Peninsula Bowmen

(Archery UK, 2013, p. 25)
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Discussion

Even if you do not know the language of archery, you might well be able to grasp the general issue which the writer is discussing: the relative merits of using fatter or thinner arrows in terms of the damage they do to the ‘boss’. The meaning of ‘boss’ is not obvious for someone who knows nothing about archery, but the context suggests that it may be the target or a part of it. However, there are sections of the letter that are puzzling to non-archers. What does the ‘51 lbs recurve’ refer to? Does the mention of ‘28 lbs’ also refer to this recurve? What is ‘the line cutter rule’? What are ‘Portsmouth rounds’?

Obviously, some specialist language is needed in order to talk about the particular equipment that is used in archery and the rules of the sport. Archers need to be familiar with the terms of archery, much as a car mechanic has to be familiar with the different parts of an engine and what they are called. However, this practical explanation is only half the story. The use of these terms communicates to the readership of the archery magazine that the writer is part of their community, that he belongs.

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