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Teaching Exercises

These sample teaching exercises can be used as in-class activities or as mini projects. They can be scaled up or down, with some that can be done entirely in class and others that require work to be done by students in advance or for homework. If you’d like to share any accompanying teaching exercises that you’ve developed, email us at sociolinguisticdatacollection AT gmail DOT com!

CHAPTER 2: Quantitative or Qualitative?

Have students read examples of quantitative studies (e.g., Dubois, Horvath & Sankoff, 1987) and qualitative studies (e.g., Holmes, 2012) as discussed in Chapter 2 by Barbara Horvath. Play a short recording and have students transcribe it. Have one group of students analyze it quantitatively (looking at a specific sociolinguistic variable), and another group look at it from a qualitative angle. What are some similarities or some differences? Do they yield any differences in insight? What are some limitations of each method? Discuss as a class what a study using mixed methods would look like and how it might be designed.

CHAPTER 3: Ethics in Collecting Data

Have students form groups, and give each group a scenario. Have the class identify any issues or challenges surrounding data collection and research publishing in the following scenarios:

  • Collecting language data in the public domain of the internet (e.g., social media feeds, blogs, etc.)
  • Gathering data from specific minority groups or vulnerable populations (e.g., minority language communities, refugee groups, children in schools, etc.)
  • Garnering data from public trials, forums, speeches, and the like.

Discuss as a class the reasons behind students’ choices. Have students read over the Linguistic Society of America’s code on Ethics. Then, discuss the role of the Institutional Review Board that exists at most colleges/universities in the U.S./Canada and elsewhere. In the scenarios above, consider whether additional IRB-type approval might be needed from community and school institutions (e.g., tribal councils, school systems or boards, non-profit organizations, governmental organizations, private groups). In each scenario, are there any moral or ethical obligations beyond what an IRB would require or address? Relate this discussion of ethics and obligations to the belief among many linguists that we should “give back” to the communities we study, and in relation to the ethical principles discussed in Chapter 3 by Sara Trechter.  

CHAPTER 5: Ethnographic Fieldwork

Have students form two groups. Each group will be asked to sketch out a design for an ethnographic study that aims to investigate a local language or dialect community. Groups should discuss the following questions:

  • What is your research question? Are you attempting to describe the structure of the language or dialect in question? Or are you attempting to explain how that language or dialect evolved? Something else? How will this affect your methods? What contexts will you need to frame your analysis?
  • What strategies might help your group enter the community under study? Are there areas of this community that may be more challenging to enter?
  • What specific knowledge, skills, tools, or resources will you need to complete your study? What resources do members of your group have access to?

After each group has designed their study, have them present their ideas to the class as a whole. Have students identify key differences between the studies, as well as differences in the results each study might garner.

VIGNETTE 5e: Studying Our Linguistic Landscapes

Language is all around us and is connected to the objects and places that we encounter as we go about our everyday lives. What language is used on billboards, posters, business signs, traffic signs, signs in stores or on public transportation, public notices, graffiti, menus, and brochures that we see around us? What do these artifacts tell us about the “linguistic landscapes” of where we live?

Have each student take pictures of some of these semiotic symbols surrounding them, write a description of the linguistic meanings behind them, and bring their pictures and analysis to class. Students can analyze patterns in what they find, in groups or together as a class. What do these artifacts tell us about the communities we come from? For instance, some discussion questions might include:  Which examples illustrate language used by private citizens? Which illustrate language used by government organizations, businesses, or corporations? What is the style and the function of the language in each circumstance and how does it differ? For objects drawn from multilingual contexts in particular, how might the language choices reflect these circumstances?  

As a follow up exercise, students can write a short essay either analyzing the linguistic landscape data they collected, or they can personally reflect on how their linguistic identity is shaped by the landscapes surrounding them.

CHAPTER 6: Thinking about the Sociolinguistic Interview

Discuss as a class the notion of the “authentic speaker” and some pitfalls for eliciting “authentic speech” as described in Chapter 6 by Kara Becker.  Brainstorm some questions that may be useful to guide students along a sociolinguistic interview.  Be conscious of interview questions and materials that presuppose literacy. For example, how would you structure your interview if your speaker is not a native speaker? How would you formulate the wording of matched guise tests to accurately capture the data you wish to collect? How do you strike the balance between ensuring participant comfort and maintaining professionalism?

Then, have students practice interviewing each other in pairs. Discuss as a class what strategies the students used to elicit dialogue, refrain from inserting themselves too much into the interview, and steer the topic of conversation to the interview questions.

CHAPTER 7: Ask a Sound Technician

Invite a sound producer or engineer from a local or on-campus radio or TV station to talk about the different recording technologies that are available and used and how to capture the best sound quality when recording people. Even if students are comfortable with a microphone, there may be some hidden tips or tricks to learn. Students can be prepared to ask such questions as:

  • What is the best microphone for your particular purposes?
  • What is the best way to store the sound quality for each device?
  • Where should the recorder be positioned in the room to allow for optimal recording?
  • What is an appropriate quality for your specific interview?

Compare and contrast the information provided by the sound producer/engineer with the recommendations commonly put forward by sociolinguists, as in Chapter 7 by Paul De Decker and Jennifer Nycz. Where do the recommendations converge or diverge? Instructors may also want to ask the sound producer/engineer to bring examples of different recording equipment available on campus for students to practice with and potentially use for conducting sociolinguistic interviews.

CHAPTER 8: Design a Written Questionnaire

Assign as a complementary reading Charles Boberg’s (2005) article, “The North American Regional Vocabulary Survey: New Variables and Methods in the Study of North American English.” Have students read the Appendix and note how Boberg phrased questions to elicit certain vocabulary terms, such as “a chocolate snack” or “pizza with all the toppings”. Have students practice with writing survey questionnaire items in partners or in groups, and combine the items presented in a class survey.

As a class, have students consider the following issues when designing their questionnaire items:

  • What type of variable will you consider (phonetic, lexical, grammatical, etc)
  • How would you construct questions and survey items to elicit accurate results?
  • How would you consider respondents who may choose a more “correct-sounding” response rather than their true linguistic choice?
  • How can you make your choices inclusive without listing too many extraneous items?
  • How will you approach open-ended responses?
  • How will you administer the survey?

For advanced classes, you may consider designing a class questionnaire for students to distribute to their peers. Afterwards, engage your students in a discussion on how accurately the results reflect language change. How would the results differ depending how the questions were asked, or how the questionnaire was administered? Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the survey design.

Additionally, students may compare their results with the Harvard Dialect Survey (Vaux, Bert, and Scott Golder, 2003), which ended in 2003, for more dialect data obtained from questionnaires.


VIGNETTE 8a: Design a Speaker Evaluation Study

Have students split into two groups. Each group will design a speaker evaluation study in which subjects would listen to a range of dialect speakers and respond to them based on a number of personality factors (e.g., intelligence, authoritativeness, etc.).

Students might consider the following questions: What demographic information will you seek from your participants? What dialect(s) did you choose and why? What attributes did you feel were relevant to ideologies about that dialect? Where are you obtaining the recordings of dialect speakers you plan to use? Are these recordings read, acted, or spontaneous? What will be the content of the recorded speech (i.e., what will speakers talk about)? How will you analyze participants’ responses? Students can compare their study designs as a class, and ambitious classes can carry out their studies.


VIGNETTE 8c: Design a Student-Led Survey

Have students outline the parameters of a study in which they would collect survey data from students. The study should seek to understand how speaker demographics might be involved in the use of variants. Examples include:

  • Use or meaning of terms of address (e.g., bro/bruh/brah; honey/hon; Miss/Ms./Mrs.; you/y’all/you guys)
  • Names for objects, events, etc. (e.g., highway/freeway/interstate; soda/pop/Coke/soft drink; ripped/swole/beast)

Students should consider the following questions: What are your independent and dependent variables? What are you measuring, and how are the questions from the survey measuring what you want to measure? Are you using fixed-choice questions or open-ended questions? Do you need to collect demographic information? How will you distribute the surveys? Will you share your survey on social media or distribute it in person? Do you expect your subjects’ responses to be representative of a larger population under study? Ambitious classes can carry out their studies, following Vignette 8c by Laurel MacKenzie.


CHAPTER 9: Design a Sociolinguistic Experiment

Have students form two groups. Each group will design a sociolinguistic experiment with the purpose of investigating the same set of phonetic, lexical, or prosodic features. For instance, you may choose vowels at a near-merger, lexical variants like you and y’all, or voice quality and pitch in mock speech, among others. Groups should discuss the following questions:

  • What is your research question? Are you focusing on a population of dialect speakers, or perhaps a subgroup of a language-speaking community?
  • How will your methods garner the data necessary to answer your question? Are you creating a production task or a perception task? Where will you conduct your tests? Speak to the resources offered in the location you’ll conduct the study.
  • How transparent is your production or perception task (i.e., is it possible for the subject(s) to figure out what data the researchers want)? What are some of the limitations of your study, and how will you address them?

After each group has designed their experiment, have them present their ideas to the class as a whole. Have students identify key differences between the experiments, as well as differences in the data each experiment will collect.


CHAPTER 11: Examining the Archives

Access the Southern Oral History Project at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and browse textual and audio records available online. Look at ex-slave narratives or accounts of personal narratives, paying close attention to their language use. Look at how writing has been shaped throughout time. How have words changed? What linguistic choices have been made?

Alternatively, have students look at literary dialects in text, and compare them to current speech. Have students discuss in groups when they come across a particularly indecipherable term, and make a claim for how a word could be altered by orthological constraints. They can also note which ones are creations in spelling versus dialect-based forms. Examples of literary works featuring dialects include:

  • Their Eyes were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • “Poor Bit of a Wench”, D.H. Lawrence
  • As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  • Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, Flannery O’Connor


CHAPTER 12: Exploring Issues in Data Preservation and Access

Have students form groups and give each group one of the following scenarios. Students should discuss how linguistic data may be difficult to preserve or access in their group’s scenario, and then brainstorm methods of preserving and maintaining access for that data. How do these strategies converge or diverge from those discussed in Chapter 12 by Tyler Kendall?  Potential scenarios include:

  • A research team focused on the language of trauma seeks to interview survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault. Interview subjects include deaf or hard of hearing participants who use American Sign Language. (Relevant issues: audio vs video, whether current video or audio captures relevant information for future research, subject privacy vs. public access)
  • A research team wants to understand the extent to which an understudied medium (choose one: video games, graphic novels, audio books) have grown to include characters with diverse voices. They want to use a variety of texts from different eras in that medium’s growth. (Relevant issues: technological advancements, relevance/access to older technology, copyright law vs. public access)
  • A research team is interested in understanding the difference between discourse strategies used in Twitter and those used in Facebook when sharing politically salient media (e.g., articles about candidates, talking points, current events or issues). The researchers want to understand how banning users or deleting posts are communicated or referenced to save face or confront the original poster. (Relevant issues: preserving response threads/structures, recording deleted posts/comments or those marked as spam, privacy vs. public access)


CHAPTER 13: Studying Performed Language 

Students can be asked to imagine they are conducting a research project that compares scripted and improvised speech by a particular identity (e.g., African American men, Asian American women, Southern U.S. speakers, genderqueer individuals, etc.) in radio, television, or other media. Questions for consideration include: What questions might you ask about the media under study? What limitations might you encounter in comparing variations in speech? Now, consider how your proposed study might be uniquely situated in time and place. For instance, what are the challenges or limitations of approaching a research project examining the use of languages or dialects in poems or songs across genres or time periods? (e.g., 18th-century English literature, 21st-century slam poetry, contemporary pop music, etc.).


CHAPTER 14: Collecting Online Data

As a class, ask students to identify what online spaces they contribute their voice to. Social media? Blogs? Websites? Discuss the unique social and linguistic characteristics of each online space. Potential topics to cover include:

  • What are the units, sequences and intervals of a chain of messages on a Facebook post? How do these structures compare to perhaps unintentional contributions? For instance, Facebook lists trending topics or stories; clicking on these topics connects you to a live collection of posts or reposts about that topic, ranging from news articles to public posts about the topic. Is this feed a text? A place?
  • Is it ethical as researchers to draw, reference, or publish screen names from public posts on a website? For example, on Youtube, you may choose to either create a username or use your real name as your username. What guidelines might need to be in place for collecting data (e.g., screenshots) from a YouTube comment feed?


CHAPTER 16: Exploring Our Own Cultural Communities

On their own or in groups, students can be asked to write down the cultural communities they are a part of, and then consider several questions as discussion starters. For instance, what identities do you identify with? How do you interact with those communities? What sort of linguistic norms are present? What are some linguistic taboos within the cultural group? Are there any tensions between or among any identities you possess? You may even have students create digital stories and share them with the class. Click here for examples of digital storytelling.


CHAPTER 17: Design a Linguistic Diversity Program

Ask students to examine dialect awareness or linguistic diversity programs in education. Examples include the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP), the West Virginia Dialect Project (WVDP), and the School Kids Investigating Language in Life + Society (SKILLS) Project at UCSB. What are common elements of the programs? Would students describe the programs as global/holistic or local/specialized? How does each program approach, interact with, or contribute to the local community?

Have students propose a dialect awareness or linguistic diversity program that could be designed at your own university. What populations will your program work with? What are your program’s goals? How will your program benefit or raise awareness of the community of speakers you seek to study/represent/support?


Vignette 18a: Studying Sociolinguistics in the Media

Have students research news articles on language variation. Topics they might search for include:

  • Voice quality or intonation (vocal fry/creaky voice, uptalk/HRT)
  • Particular accents (e.g., claims about the origins of the Australian accent, characterizations of the “Southern drawl”)
  • New words or phrases introduced into American speech (e.g., lit, fam, savage, manspreading, lumbersexual)

Students should analyze and critique how the subject of the article is represented. Good questions to ask are:

  • Does the article cite a research project? What level of detail is given to the methods of the project? To the population under study?
  • How does the article represent speakers of the speech variants or dialects? Are the speakers viewed in a positive or negative light?
  • If the article is online and has a comments section, how do the comments on the article correspond to the material? Are they critical of the article or do they agree with its claims?

Have students read over the Linguistics and the News Media LSA Outreach Guide and examine the various LSA pamphlets included below. How might they create their own pamphlet? What issues or content do they want the public to be informed of in relation to speech and language?


Vignette 18c: Analyzing Language and Politics in the Media

In Vignette 18c, Andrew Wong suggests that “the right to make meaning is an important form of symbolic capital.” Consider the recontextualization of language in the media — for instance, Twitter users’ backlash to #HillarySoQualified or variants of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” (e.g., All/Blue/No Lives Matter). How do these linguistic turns of phrase reflect/react to discussion around current events? Who has “the right to make meaning”?

Have students design a campaign around a social justice issue. Students should focus on how the use of language can respond or add to popular discourse surrounding the issue, or perhaps critique how others characterize their issue of choice.


*Many thanks to graduate research assistants May F. Chung and Jonathan Inscoe for drafting these exercises!  If you have one to share, email us at sociolinguisticdatacollection AT gmail DOT com.

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