Psycholinguistics (sometimes referred to as the psychology of language) refers to the study of the neurobiological and psychological factors that enable human beings to comprehend, acquire and produce language. Stemming from this field of linguistics, areas such as biology, neurobiology and cognitive science are used to examine how the brain processes language. Moreover, psycholinguistics focuses on how the elements of grammars are acquired (such as one’s ability to change syntactical structures when switching from Spanish to English, for example).
Bilingualism refers to act of one being competent, fluent and having the ability to communicate flawlessly in two languages. For example, one who is fluent in French (one’s primary language), but can speak also speak another language such as Spanish, is considered to be bilingual; these people are able to not only use the words of the second language, but also adopt the semantics, syntax and other principles of the language. Psycholinguists often study this phenomena to see how the brain is able to acquire two languages fluently and how one is able to switch from one language to another effortlessly; bilingualism ought not be confused with code switching, though.
Sociolinguistics refers to the relationship between language use and the social world or community in which it surfaces, and particularly, how language functions within and creates social structures; therefore, it is assumed that linguistics has a social dimension. Often evaluated in sociolinguistics are notions such as class, gender, ethnicity and so forth. Moreover, stemming from this study are two branches: Micro and macro-sociolinguistics. Micro-sociolinguistics refers to studying the social aspects of a particular slant—that is, the focus on dialect or register/stylistic variations of language; it might be helpful to think of micro-sociolinguistics as microscopic linguistics, as it covers only a small area of space. Macro-sociolinguistics, on the other hand, is concerned with studying language within a sociological or a social psychological slant, often focusing on what entire societies do with language, and emphasis ideas such as language loss and what certain societies do with language; it may be helpful here to consider this study as macroscopic—that is, cover a larger area of study.
We all use sociolinguistics in our everyday lives. If one thinks even briefly about it, so often we say, “that person is uneducated” or “Ah, he’s from the south. I can tell on his accent.” Or “He’s from Newark—he speaks in the vernacular.” We are assessing the dialects of the spoken English, the ethnicities of the speakers and the accents that are apparent in order to make a decision as to the origin of the person. Moreover, we can often tell who identifies with the upper-class based upon the lexicon and idioms/vocabulary used and those who identify with a lower-middle class of people.
For example, consider the film, “My fair lady” in which Eliza, a low-class woman from the countryside, seeks the help of esteemed linguist, Professor Rex Higgins. She asks him to help her speak—to teach her “proper” English so that she could identify with the class Higgins, himself, belonged to. The movie, in my opinion, embodies both the sub-field of micro and macro- sociolinguistics, for it places a heavy emphasis on dialect and accent as well as gender roles (why would a woman want to speak sophisticatedly), class, how entire communities view language and how the study of discourse if important in everyday life.
Robert J. Platt, M.A.