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Department of English
College of Arts
University of Basra

Social Influences on Language Learning:

Applied Linguistics

Research Methodology and Computer

Mustafa Abdulsahib

January 2015


Section one Introduction

Section two Social Influences

1-Ellis' classification

2- Hymes' classification

Section three Elements of Language Learning


2-Input and Output


4-Social Context

Section four Social Factors

1- Gender and Power

2- Age
3- Audience
4- Social Class
5- Identity
6- Social network relations
7- Geographical and Social Mobility

Section five Practical Investigations

Section sex Conclusion


Section one

Learning a foreign language is a complex process in which

how learners grasp the grammatical system of the target language
and how they use it to communicate with others appropriately.
Many factors such as psychological or social factors play very
important role in second language learning.

This paper will focus mainly on these of social influences of

language learning. Some learners acquire a second language easily
while others struggle and get only limited success. That happens
because of many factors, such as age, language aptitude,
social_psychological factors. One of the assignments of the applied
linguist is trying to examine or determine what goes on in the
mind of the learner in relation to the environment. Obviously, a lot
of things go on at the same time in the mind of the learner which
the linguist cannot see physically. This means that in matters of
language learning, a number of variables come into play.
Widdowson (2000:3) notes that applied linguistics is a mediating
activity which seeks to accommodate a linguistic account to other
partial perspectives on language so as to arrive at a relevant
reformulation of real world problems.

Therefore, Second language acquisition is the process by which

people learn a second language . This paper describes in detail how
quickly learners learn a foreign language and the ultimate level
that learners reach is decided not only by psychological factors but
also social factors.

Three types of social structures which can affect the acquisition

of second languages: sociolinguistic setting, specific social factors,
and situational factors. Sociolinguistic setting refers to the role of
the second language in society. Specific social factors that can
affect second language acquisition include age, gender, social class,
and ethnic identity. Situational factors are those which vary
between each social interaction.

Hua et al (2007:1) state that some linguists believe that language

learning is a social act. The social identity of learners is formed and
transfrmed by the process of learning . The knowledge that is
acquire is social knowledge and it is affected by roles, relationships,
attitudes and ideologies of the learner teacher. Moreover, second
language learning seems to be as a social interaction and relates to
different kinds of social context.

Section two
Social Influences

It is significant to study social influences on language learning

because " languages are learned in social context" (Spolsky,
1989:131). Hutchinson & Waters (1987:72) refer to this social
influences on language learning as "Learning can, and should, be
seen in the context in which it takes place. Learning is not just a
mental process, it is a process of negotiation between individual
and society". Davies & Elder (2004:554) state that "there must be a
relationship between social context and language learning, learning
does not and cannot take place in a social vacuum".

The classification of social influences

Two classifications of social influences on language learning: Ellis'
and Hymes' classification.

1-Ellis' classification
Ellis (1994:197) differentiates between social context and social
factors. To Ellis, social context refers to different settings in which
L2 can take place. Each setting can be seen as a context in which
a number of social factors influence learning outcomes.

These settings are either a 'natural' or 'educational'. These social

contexts have direct relationships with L2 proficiency. The other
term is social factors are age, sex, social class and ethnic identity
(Davies & Elder,2004:554). To Ellis, settings could be natural settings
where informal learning occurs or educational settings where
formal learning takes place. Ellis also refers to what he calls social

‘aspects’ (Ellis,1997:37), social determinants (Ellis and Roberts

1987:26), situation domains and situational contexts (Ellis & Roberts
1987: 7), situational variables Ellis (1990) , learning environments, and
external constraints (Ellis,1999:461).

2- Hymes'classification
According to Hymes' communicative competence, what the
learner needs to know depends on the social context which the
learner learns and uses language. Troike(2012:108) distinguishes
between microsocial and macrosocial factors . The microsocial
factors include features of setting and interaction that relate to
communicative events within which language is being produced
and interpreted (Troike,2006:101). Microsocial factor "deals with the
potential effects of different immediately surrounding circumstances"

macrosocial factors, on the other hand, include features of the

larger political setting where language learning and use takes place
Macrosocial factors, on the other hand, is a broader cultural, political
and educational environments, and it influences what happens in
classroom"(Troike,2012:108). Lier (1988:7) describes the macrosocial
view as involving the wider community, and microsocial view, by
contrast, is restricted within classroom

According to Troike ,he classifies macrosocial factors into the


1. Global and national level

Its influences on second language acquisition involve the power
and status of learners’ native and target languages, whether overtly
stated in official policies or covertly realized in cultural values and

2. Social boundaries
Influences on second language acquisition (SLA) at this level
often involve the relationship between native and target language
groups, as well as the openness and perviousness of community

3. Institutional forces and constraints

They often affect the use and knowledge of L2 in relation to
such things as social control, political and religious practices, and
economic and educational opportunities.

4. Social categories
Age, gender, and ethnicity are factors of social group membership
which may potentially be relevant to second language learning.

5. circumstances of learning
They can influence SLA, such as learners’ prior educational
experiences, whether the L2 learning process is informal or formal,
and (if formal) the type of educational model learners have access
to and the pedagogical orientation of their teachers and


Ellis' and Hymes' classifications focus on the main idea which

is how social factors have influences the elements of language
learning. This paper aims at emphasizing the importance of factors
which affect language learning and language learning process. It
summarizes the elements of language learning, and explain the
factors which affect language learning process. Therefore, the
following section focuses on the elements of language learning and
how they are influenced by social factors.

Section three
Elements of Language Learning

Davies & Elder(2004:556) note that learning a second language

involves at least five elements: learner, input, output, interlanguage,
and social context . They describe these elements as "obligatory
elements" in language learning. Below is a diagram of the
relationship between the elements.





Social context

Figure 1

(From Davies & Elder,2004:556).


Learner is the most important element in learning process
which has different attitude toward L2, its speakers, its culture,
some its uses, social value being learning the L2. These attitudes
have impact on second language learning (Ellis, 1994:198-201).
There are a number of social factors that can be mediated through
learner attitudes which affect language learning. Ellis mentioned
four factors: age, sex, social class and ethnic identity. He notes that
it is not those factors that determine L2 proficiency but the social
conditions associated with these variables (Ellis, 1994:198-201).

Ellis (1994:202) concludes that younger learners are generally

more successful at learning languages than older learners. Ellis also
notes that sociolinguistic research has shown that men use a
higher frequency of no standard forms than women. Ellis added
that women might be better at L2 learning than men because they
are likely to be open to new linguistic forms L2 input and are
more likely to rid themselves of interlanguage forms that deviate
from target language norms (Davies & Elder,2004:556).

Ellis summarizes the findings of the few available studies which

have investigated social class and L2 learning as follows;

The results to date suggest that middleclass children achieve higher levels of
L2 proficiency and more positive attitudes than working class children when
the programme emphasises formal learning. This may be because they are
better able to deal with decontextualised language. However, when the
programme emphasises communicative language skills, the social class of
learners have no effect (Ellis,1994:202).

All these factors have an influence on the one of the most

significant elements of language learning which is learner. They also
play a major role in affecting on the input and output elements.

2- Input and output

The environment, where the learning process takes place,
contributes to form second language input, that is perceived by
the language learner, and the output, that is produced by him/her
(Mitchell, 2004:159). Davies & Elder(2004:558) state that input is
received by learners when listening or reading in second language
learning takes place whether in a natural setting or artificial one
like classroom. Output, on the other hand, depends on the learner's
writing or speaking.

Some studies in the field on language learning indicates the role

that learner's social identity and relations of power, play in how
input and output are constructed and their role in language
learning. Output is not merely using linguistic forms appropriately, but
it has a political role within the target language (Davies &
Elder,2004:559). Spada (1997) notes that it is not very clear what
the effect of input is on language learning.

Both of input and output are parts of social context. They play
important part, and have a great influence on interlanguage.

Interlanguage, as another element of learning process, is non-
native language which contains new forms that are not found in L1
as well as in L2 (Robinson,2013: 338). Davies & Elder(2004:559) note
that one of the goals of language learning is to construct a mental
system of L2 knowledge, what is referred to in different ways as an
interlanguage (IL). Interlanguage indicates the linguistic system
evidenced when a second language learner tries to express some
meanings in the target language. This system is different from L1
and L2 but relates to both of them (Tarone,2006:749). A learner's
interlanguage system is "neither the system of the native language nor

the system of target language, but instead falls between the two"
(Brown, 1994, p. 204).

› Ellis (1997:37) refers to three different approaches that discuss

the influence of the social factors on interlanguage. First looks at
interlanguage as consisting of various style which learner has to use
under different condition. The second indicates how social factors
shape the input that is used in constructing the learner’s
interlanguage. The third concerns how the learner’s social identities,
that they negotiate when they communicate with native speakers,
shape their opportunities to learn L2.

4- Social context
Davies & Elder(2004:554) note that there is a social and
contextual dimension to every naturally occurring use of language
and that these social factors determine the choice and form of
what is written, said or understood. Sociolinguistics helps us to see
the influences of ethnicity, gender, ideology and social rank on
language events.

To sum up the idea, it is obvious that these elements are

affected by many social factors. Following section presents some of
these factors that can influence language behavior.

Section four
Social Factors

All elements that have been discussed: learner, input and

output, interlanguage, and social context are affected by some
social factors. These social factors have a major effect on learning ,
but they do not influence language learned directly (Ellis,1994:197).
Below are some of these factors .

1- Gender and power

Gender reflects some differences in how women and men use

their language. Males and females are greatly different in terms of
social interactions. The differences could be in terms of the way
people plan their narratives, discourse organization, different accents
that men and women use from one region to the other
(Ellis,1997:37). For example, men use non-standard forms frequently
while women use standard ones. Ellis differentiates between Asian
men and Asian women as the following:
Sex is, of course, likely to interact with other variables in
determining L2 proficiency. It will not always be the case, therefore, that
females outperform males. Asian men in Britain generally attain higher
levels of proficiency in L2 English than do Asian women for the simple
reason that their jobs bring them into contact with the majority English
speaking group, while women are often "enclosed" in the home. Sex
interacts with such factors as age, ethnicity, and, in particular social
class (1994:204).

Adamson and Regan (1991:19) found that women had a higher

use of the prestige than men. Women also use more formal

variants than men. In addition to that , women might be better at

L2 learning than men. Ellis (1994:203) note that women tend to use
new forms in their speech. Men, on the other hand, may less use
to new forms. Ellis concludes that men use translation strategies
more than women. Therefore, sex is the major factors that
interacts with other social factors.

Age is a biological factor affecting L2 learning, but it is at the
same tame regarded as social factor. The adults use their language
in way different from that of young (schmitt,2010:151). The young
people, for instance, prefer to use non-standard variants, adults
prefer the standard variants, older people, however, tend to use
non-standard variant but not exactly as the younger people. The
young also have all sorts of slangs and modern day usage that
are not familiar to the older ones and which they count as deviant
at times (Ellis,1994:212).

3- Audience
Type of listeners or addresses specifies the language and the
style which have to be used. Conversations usually have a recipient
design (schmitt,2010:151). Speakers produce utterances with the
listeners in mind. It makes speakers to adjust their tone, accent,
style, posture and even they walk at times. Schmitt (2010:151)
refers to this as accommodation and notes that this can be an
important cause of language change over time.

4-Social Class
There is a clear parallel between sociolinguistic phenomena
associated with social class an language change and interlanguage
development. There is also a relationship between social class and L2
achievement. Children from lower socio-economic group are less
successful educationally than those from higher group. Middle-class
children achieve higher level of L2 proficiency and more positive
attitudes than working class children when the programme emphasizes
formal language learning. Not social class itself but the experiences of
the world which members of different social classes are likely to have.

5- Ethnic Identity
Ethnic Identity is an important social factor. Schmitt (2010:151)
States that People are usually aware of "their personal, ethnic,
political and family identities and this is often a factor in their
language use". People pay allegiance to their family or membership
of a particular social group or organisation. This can show forth in
their language patterns and use.

According to Ellis (1994:207), the influence of ethnic Identity can

take place in three possible forms:

A. Corresponding to normative

The ‘distance’ between the cultures the native and target

languages, the idea being that more distant the two cultures are,
the most difficult L2 learning is.

B. Socio-psychological

The attitudes that learners hold towards the learning of a

particular L2 reflect the intersection of their views about their own
ethnic identity and those about the target language culture. These
views will influence both L2 and L1 learning.

C. Socio-structural

Members of an in-group may or may not adopt positive

linguistic distinctiveness strategies when communicating with
members of out-group.


6- Social network relations

Social network is one of the major social factors that is related
to second language learning. It is introduced by Milroly in 1987s.
Social network is the relationship between learners and their
interactions within a social group. It refers to the role of the
relative strength between people within a social group in
understanding how linguistic features are maintained, reinforced
and spread . Language use may depend on whether individuals have
strong or weak ties with their group. This kind of ties can wield a
lot of socio-linguistic influence (schmitt,2010:151).

7- Geographical and Social Mobility

Each language has its own dialects that are localized

geographically, "where the shift from one dialect to the next is not
sudden between one town or county or state and the next"
(schmitt,2010:150). Therefore, geographical mobility can affect
learners' languages or dialect.

Practical Investigations
The practical side of this paper will be applied only for one
social factor which is gender, and how male language differs from
that of female. Many experts are convinced that there are
differences between females’ and males’ way of speech. However,
there are those who believe the opposite. They do not believe in
certain differences, instead they claim that the differences are
random and have nothing to do with the sex of the speaker. Is it
possible to distinguish typical attributes for females and males?

After many investigations, I have written a dialogue that is

implemented with specific words, expressions and comments typical
for females and males, all according to various experts. The
dialogue is between a man and a woman.

(1) A: I think it was quite horrible…

(2) [B looked at A and then looked down in the newspaper.]

(3) B: …mhm…

(4) A: Well, you know… I really felt so bad about the boy. Such a nice
boy! You didn’t feel

(5) bad for him, did you?

(6) B: Shit!

(7) [B spilled coffee all over the floor.]

(8) A: Oh, my goodness! Did you get any coffee on you?

(9) B: God damn it… Give me some paper!

(10) A: You might say ‘please’. It wouldn’t hurt, you know.


(11) [A gave B some paper.]

(12) A:I mean… I’m sure that he will get all the help he needs now, being
alone and

(13) everything… I cannot understand why some people think it’s his

(14) B: (own fault. Well, I can.)

(15) A: If it happened to you, you would probably

(16) B: (what? Probably what?)

(17) A: Well, you would probably have had help from

(18) B: (my family. I damn would, wouldn’t I?)

(19) A: Yes, I suppose you are right.

(20) B: He certainly had his warnings but still he married her.

(21) A: (mhm) (right)

(22) B: Hand me the Sport Magazine by the sofa!

(23) A: Please, will you hand me the Sport Magazine by the sofa?

(24) B: Yeah, yeah. Whatever… Intensifiers: So, such,

( This dialogue is taken from Sunderland, 2006:62)

It is obvious from this dialogue that female uses the following


•Hedges: I think, you know, I really, I mean, I’m sure, I suppose

•Tag questions: You didn’t- did you?

•Minimal responses: Yeah, mhm, right


•Words which are supposed to be used more frequently by women than

men: Oh, my goodness,

●Polite language: Please

●Formal language: I can not…

The male,on the other hand, uses the following attributes:

●Strategy in order to control the conversation

●Minimal response in order to let the woman know he is not interested

in what she has to say

●Taboo- words: The man uses taboo-words which are supposed to be

more frequently used among males than females. The words are: Shit!,
God damn it!

●Commands: ‘Give me some paper!’, ‘Hand me the Sport Magazine by

the sofa!’.

The male attribute in the test dialogue controls the conversation

by using different kinds of strategies. In line 2 he dismisses the
female’s comment and remains silent. The woman tries to explain
to him, as if she might feel that he is not following in the
conversation (line 4). Furthermore, he also interrupts the female.
Instead of answering the question: You didn’t feel bad for him, did
you? the man says: Shit!. He does not seem interested in the choice
of topic and he interrupts the female frequently (line 14, 16 and 18).
He 'steals space' from the female and he ends her sentences in a
very rude way. He commands her twice in the dialogue. Firstly in
line 9: Give me some paper, secondly in line 22: Hand me the Sport
Magazine by the sofa!. Instead of talking about a mutual
acquaintance, the man wants to end the conversation and read his
Sport Magazine.


This paper has focused on the second language acquisition

process from the perspective of social factors. We have been able
to go through the act of learning, second language learning,
interlanguage and social factors that affect language learning. It is
obvious that learning process is highly affected by the social
factors. The affection varies depending on who is the learner, what
kind of input he has, his attitude toward the target language and
its culture. The factors like social factors affect the way in which
language learners learn the target language. The practical side had
focused on one factor which is gender in which there are many
differences between male and female. I summed up some of these
differences. These differences are problematic matters because
some scholars agree that there are such differences, while others do
not. But after many investigations, I found that women exactly differ
from men in many uses like prestigious forms, formal variants,
hedges, tag questions, minimal responses, commands and others. All
these are distinguished women from men.

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