Sociolinguistics & ESOL

Key Concepts


The relationship between language and society; the study of how language reflects, structures and dominates social life. Some areas of sociolinguistic study are: language varieties; stylistic variation; language ideologies, attitudes and stereotypes; interaction; language and culture; societal and individual bi/multilingualism, language change.

Communicative repertoire

Our ability to draw on a range of resources, i.e. different named languages, language varieties, genres, styles, registers etc. to communicate in different contexts.

Repertoires are biographical and reflect where we have lived, worked and spent time and who we have mixed with. Migration can create an unpredictable mix of linguistic capacities and practices, especially in ‘superdiverse’ environments.

Seeing an individual as having a ‘repertoire’ challenges the idea that language competence can only be counted as mastery of discrete and well-formed named languages (‘French’ ‘Urdu’ ‘Arabic’) and the myth that languages are finished products spoken by a native speaker.

Language practices

What people actually do with language in day to day life in different settings, contexts and domains. Language practices describe how we routinely use the linguistic resources we have in different situations in our lives. This can include our choice of sounds, words, grammar, formality, politeness, variety, style etc. Often we are unaware of the choices we are making.

When members of a speech community (any group of people who share a set of language practices and beliefs) hear a piece of discourse they can identify not just the meaning, but also evidence of specific choices which characterise the age, gender, social class, probable place of birth and education, level of education and other facts about the speaker and his or her attitude, and provide clues to the situation and context. These choices are governed by conventional rules, not unlike grammatical rules, which are learned by members of the speech community as they grow up.

Language domains

The basic notion that different spheres of life i.e. the home, work, education, the street, public transport, places of worship and so on are characterised by the use of different languages and literacies.

This can have repercussions: for example, the language or language variety of the home may be very different from the school; this can create an unfair advantage for children whose home language practices align closely to the school and problems for children whose resources are not recognised.


Some researchers view bilingualism as the ability to use two languages and multilingualism as the ability to use three or more. However, it is more common nowadays to use the terms multilingualism and bilingualism to refer to the same phenomenon, i.e. the ability to function, at some level, in more than one language. Perfect mastery and perfect balance of two or more languages is not required for a person to be regarded as bi/multilingual.

Multilingualism can be studied from an individual and a societal perspective. The multilingualism of individuals is sometimes referred to as polylingualism. Multilingualism in society is characterised by the presence in a geographical area of more than one language – these languages may or may not be recognised officially in law and language policy.

Code switching

The process whereby bilingual (or bidialectal) speakers switch back and forth between one language or dialect and another within the same conversation; code-switching is common in conversations where participants share a knowledge of two or more languages.

Research has shown that there are multiple reasons why interactants might code-switch:

  • reflecting a change in the social situation
  • reflecting a change of topic
  • quoting somebody
  • signalling group membership/ethnic or political identity
  • expressing solidarity/social distance
  • signalling attitudes to the listener
  • adding emphasis/authority


How a speaker might potentially draw on a wide repertoire of linguistic and other semiotic (meaning making) resources to communicate and get things done. These resources might include translation, mime, gesture, strategically simplified English, emojis and so on as well as ‘named’ languages and varieties. Translanguaging is defined by García & Li Wei (2014) as ‘the fluid multilingualism characteristic of interaction in the world’s superdiverse urban areas’.

Language ideologies

Ways in which language uses and beliefs are linked to relations of power and political arrangements in societies. Language ideologies can help give an insight into the workings of power and how language is appropriated by powerful elites, for example in education or language polices, to maintain dominance.

Examples of language ideologies are:

  • ‘ESOL students learn more English if they don’t speak other languages in class…’
  • ‘Parents who want their kids to learn their heritage language shouldn’t allow mixing at home – children will only get confused…’
  • ‘Social cohesion depends on people speaking English’


Discrimination on the basis of language, in the same way that ‘racism’ is discrimination on the basis of race/skin colour or ‘sexism’ is discrimination on the grounds of sex.

Linguicism can be institutionalised, i.e. when some languages are not recognised and thus the speakers of that language do not have the same affordances and opportunities as the rest of the population, or it can operate on a personal level, i.e. when someone is insulted for speaking another language in public, for example.

Heritage language

The termheritage language’ generally refers to a language with which a speaker feels a personal affiliation, either because it was the language of their parents or grandparents, their ethnic group or their ancestral home. In the UK other terms are ‘community languages’ and ‘home languages’

Family language policy

Family language policy is a term used to describe explicit decisions families make regarding language use. This can often relate to the ‘rules’ families establish about how and when different languages can be used in the home. Research in this field explores how languages are managed, learned, and negotiated within families.

Multilingual pedagogies

Ways of teaching and learning that include the language practices of all students, particularly in settings where classrooms are highly linguistically heterogeneous. There is not one method or approach but a set of principles drawing on insights from research on multilingualism, i.e. that languages are not stored separately in the brain and are connected to each other in multiple ways. The focus should be not on the individual languages spoken by students but on what students do with languages in multilingual spaces. Activities and methods in a multilingual pedagogy might include: translation; creative multilingual storytelling; ‘translanguaging’, i.e. the planned use of students’ strong languages to help them access the curriculum or to develop their linguistic skills across their repertoire.

Further reading

Auerbach, E.R. (1992) Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy. Center for Applied Linguistics/ERIC.

Auerbach, E. R. (1993) Re-examining English Only in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly 27/1, 9-32

Blommaert, J. & B. Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity: A position paper. Paper 70, Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies, King’s College, London.

Bryers, D., Winstanley, B., and Cooke, M. (2013) Whose integration? Paper 106, Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies, Kings College London.

Bryers, D., Winstanley, B., and Cooke, M. (2014) ‘The Power of Discussion’. In Mallows, D. (ed.) (2014) Language issues in migration and integration: perspectives from teachers and learners. London: British Council.

Cooke, M. and Simpson, J. (2012) ‘Discourses about linguistic diversity’. In Martin-Jones, M., Blackledge A., and Creese, A. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Multilingualism. London: Routledge.

Cooke, M., Winstanley, B and Bryers, D. (2014) ‘Participatory ESOL in the UK’. In Simpson, J. and Whiteside, A. Adult Language Education and Migration: Challenging Agendas in Policy and Practice. London: Routledge

Cooke, M., Bryers, D., and Winstanley, B. (2018). ‘“Our Languages”: Sociolinguistics in multilingual participatory ESOL’.  Paper 234 Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies. King’s College, London.

Cooke, M and Peutrell, R. (2019) Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens: exploring ESOL and citizenship. Multilingual Matters

Creese A. & Blackledge, A. (2010) Translanguaging in the bilingual classroom: A pedagogy for learning and teaching. Modern Language Journal, 94, 103–115.

García, O. & Li, W. (2014) Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

García, O. (2017). ‘Problematizing linguistic integration of migrants: The role of translanguaging and language teachers’. In Beacco, J.-C. Krumm, H.-J., Little, D., and Thagott, P. (eds.) The Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants / L’intégration linguistique des migrants adultes: Some lessons from research / Les enseignements de la recherché. De Gruyter Mouton.

Holmes, S. (2015) Promoting multilingual creativity: Key principals from successful projects. Paper 182, Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies, Kings College London.

Otheguy, R., García, O. & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguisticsApplied Linguistics Review 6(3): 281-307.

Pöyhönen, S., M. Tarnanen & J. Simpson (2018) ‘Adult migrant language education in a diversifying world’. In A. Creese & A. Blackledge (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Language and Superdiversity. Routledge.

Rampton, B., Cooke, M., and Holmes, S. (2018) Promoting Linguistic Citizenship: Issues, problems and possibilities. Paper 233, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, King’s College, London.

Rampton, B. (2019) What do we mean by ‘multilingual?’ Linguistic repertoires. Paper 260, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, King’s College, London.

Rampton, B. and Holmes, S. (2019) How we feel and think about language: Language ideologies and the ‘total linguistic fact’. Paper 261, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, King’s College, London.

Sankaran, L. (2019) Homeland’ and ‘host-land’ identifications in the Sri Lankan diaspora. Paper 253, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, King’s College, London.

Simpson, J. et al (2017). Translanguaging, superdiversity and ESOL: A summary of the 2017 TLang e-seminar (WP32). (

Simpson, J. & Cooke, M. (2017) Recognising multilingual realities in ESOL. Language Issues, 28/2

Weber, J.J. & Horner, K. (2012) Introducing Multilingualism: a social approach. Routledge.

Winstanley, B. and Cooke, M. (2016), Emerging Worlds, Emerging Words: report of the Reflect ESOL Planning Project. Action Aid. Available at:

Other projects

T-Lang – A collaboration between academic researchers, non-academic partners, and community stakeholders. The interdisciplinary research programme developed new understandings of multilingual interaction in cities in the UK, and communicated these to policy-makers and communities locally, nationally, and internationally.

ACT ESOL – Combining theatre of the oppressed and language learning. ACT ESOL has produced materials and training for ESOL teachers.

Multilingual Cities Movement – Researchers and organisations representing various university projects and community initiatives have reached out to academics, students, professionals, local government and community activists to join forces to celebrate and harness multilingualism and language diversity.

NALDIC – The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum is the UK’s national subject association for EAL (English as an Additional Language). NALDIC provides a professional forum for the teaching and learning of English as an additional language, supporting bilingualism, raising the achievement of ethnic minority learners, and promoting the development of research, policy and practice.

Learning Unlimited – Learning Unlimited is a not for profit social enterprise that specialises in adult and family learning (including heritage language transmission), ESOL and integration, literacy, numeracy and teacher education. They lead local, national and international projects, develop and publish books and resources, and do a wide variety of consultancy work.