July 17, 2007 Feature

Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Aspects of Communication: Research-Praxis Relationships

Effective communication requires the integration of multiple factors, including linguistic, cultural, cognitive, and neurological variables. Ethnography and sociolinguistics may enhance our understanding of how those factors interact. Ethnography is the systematic, qualitative study of culture, including the cultural bases of linguistic skills and communicative contexts (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1995). Sociolinguistics, on the other hand, focuses on how language use is shaped by individual and societal forces (Coulmas, 1997). As examples, ethnographic research may examine discourse and vocabulary trends in a specific cultural group; sociolinguistic studies may focus on language input differences in bilingual development or age-related speech variation (Ball, 2005).

Although the separation between ethnography and sociolinguistics is not always clear (Salzmann, 1993), the application of ethnographic and sociolinguistic principles to speech-language pathology research and practice is critical. Ethnographic and sociolinguistic descriptions point to key relationships in the inextricable links among culture, language, communication, and cognition. Language development, communication acts, and concomitant thought processes are affected by the cultural world in which we live (Centeno, 2007b). Ethnographic and sociolinguistic analysis expands our understanding of an individual's communication history, language profile, and psycholinguistic processing (Ball, 2005; Centeno, 2007b), and has particular significance in our increasingly diverse clinical caseloads. Based on monolingual and bilingual speakers, current research and theory illustrate how approaches grounded in the ethnographic and sociolinguistic realities of language and communication can enrich experimental methodology, theory-building, and evidence-based practices in speech-language pathology.

Child Language Analysis

The analysis of spontaneous language samples is a critical tool for SLPs involved in research and pediatric practice. Knowledge of the cultural and sociolinguistic contexts in which children acquire and use language enhances the productive elicitation and accurate analysis of children's language skills. This knowledge includes topics, conversational formats, and tasks that maximize language productivity, as well as analysis techniques that consider acquisitional variables.

Language samples from Latino children in the United States can serve as an illustration. Latino children constitute the nation's largest minority population receiving speech-language services in pediatric settings (e.g., Roseberry-McKibbin et al., 2005). These children also represent diverse social, cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds, which translate into considerable variability in cultural norms, literacy experiences, discourse styles, Spanish dialects, and levels of bilingualism (McCabe & Bliss, 2003; Zentella, 2005).

To stimulate productivity in the collection of language samples, clinicians need to acknowledge language socialization practices consistent with a child's developmental background. For example, the discourse of Mexican-American families frequently focuses on the family. Storytelling as entertainment also is common in Mexican-American homes (McCabe & Bliss, 2003); consequently, family-related topics in storytelling may lead to greater expressive output when used with Mexican-American children.

Similarly, elicitation of appropriate language requires suitable techniques. Although there is limited research on language elicitation methods used with Latino children, some studies have pointed to effective strategies. For example, Latino children can be successful story retellers from preschool age, particularly when they have training or models (Fiestas & Peña, 2004; Gutiérrez-Clellen & Hofstetter, 1994; Restrepo, 1998). Story retelling can be more fruitful than spontaneous story production in eliciting language in both preschool and school-age Latino children (Castilla & Restrepo, 2004). In fact, story retelling combined with parent reports provide the best identification of Spanish-speaking children with language disorders (Restrepo, 1998; Restrepo et al., 2005).

The accurate examination and diagnostic assessment of language samples must be grounded in the sociolinguistic contexts affecting language input during acquisition. Sound language analysis can help SLPs understand children's developmental linguistic changes in monolingual and bilingual contexts and assess post-intervention linguistic outcomes. For example, sensitive measures of language growth in preschool Mexican-American Spanish-speaking children can include Spanish mean length of utterance (MLU) in words and subordination index (number of dependent clauses per sentence) obtained from story retellings. Further, preschool Spanish-speaking children receiving bilingual intervention have shown significant productivity in these two measures within the same school year as compared with children in English-only language interventions (Castilla & Restrepo, 2004).

Language analysis also can detect cross-linguistic effects or grammatical changes caused by the unequal use of languages in bilingual environments. It is critical to differentiate between linguistic limitations caused by a disorder from linguistic features related to language use in bilingual communication. For example, Spanish sentence length—prior to the acquisition of English as a second language—can predict growth in English grammar in preschool children who speak Spanish (Castilla & Restrepo, 2004). In situations of language loss (attrition), the complexity of certain linguistic elements—such as verbs in Spanish—may weaken as children develop proficiency in English and use Spanish less frequently (Anderson, 2001, 2004). Additionally, language-disordered Spanish-English children in educational programs may demonstrate different attrition patterns in Spanish, their first language (L1). When examining the grammatical profiles of two bilingual Spanish-English children with language impairment, Restrepo (2003) found different patterns of L1 (Spanish) loss; one child exhibited growth in MLU while his utterances increased in errors. The other child demonstrated a decrease in MLU and a decrease in errors per utterance.

Linking ethnographic and sociolinguistic factors to language sampling facilitates appropriate methodology and diagnostic interpretations of children's grammatical development. Given the variability in acquisitional scenarios across sociocultural contexts, much research in language sampling in specific groups of monolingual and bilingual children is required before generalizations can be made.

Typical Discourse Routines

Sociolinguistic descriptions of language use provide plausible theoretical grounds to interpret psycholinguistic processing in speakers with expressive restrictions, as exemplified by verb use. Monolingual Spanish-speaking children, for example, oscillate between the present and the past in choice of dominant verb tense until age 5; the present appears to stabilize as the most frequently used tense in the spoken narratives of older children and adults (Sebastián & Slobin, 1994). Similarly, discourse analysis of Spanish conversational adult narratives revealed that—despite the frequent alternated use of the present, past, and imperfect tenses—the past-present alternation emerged as the most prominent tense shift (Silva-Corvalán, 1983).

In speakers with compromised expressive resources, the early emergence and frequent use of simple verb forms in speech may combine to maximize access and production of such verbs. Such speakers include monolingual children with expressive delays, bilingual speakers experiencing L1 loss, and aphasic speakers with limited syntactic production in their oral expressions.

Spanish-speaking adults and children with typical development and language impairment may use similar verb tenses in their narratives (Jacobson, 2006). Both groups tend to use the past (Yo caminé, "I walked"), imperfect (Yo caminaba, "I used to walk"), and present (Yo camino, "I walk") tenses more frequently than any other verb tenses in story retelling tasks. Similarly, bilingual Spanish-English children and adults experiencing L1 (Spanish) loss show a greater use of simple verb tenses in their spoken discourse—the present, the present progressive (Yo estoy caminando, "I am walking"), and the past tense (Anderson, 2001; 2004; Silva-Corvalán, 1991). Also, monolingual Spanish-speaking individuals with Broca's aphasia who experience agrammatism (impoverished syntax in their utterances) favor the present tense in their spontaneous discourse, and both the present and the past tenses in sentence repetition tasks (Centeno, 2007a; Centeno & Obler, 2001).

This evidence supports a socio-cognitive approach to interpret verb use in speakers with expressive restrictions or disorders (Centeno, 2007a; Silva-Corvalán, 1991). Verb tenses acquired early by children and used frequently in unimpaired conversation (e.g., past and present) may have certain features—being so common as to be automatic, for instance—that enhance resistance to loss and errors. In addition, these tenses with their simple inflectional endings may be easier to process than more morphologically complex tenses (e.g., conditional: Yo caminaría, "I would walk"; present perfect: Yo he caminado, "I have walked") (Centeno, 2007a; Centeno & Obler, 2001).

To understand linguistic restrictions in speakers with expressive deficits, our analysis may be strengthened by considering the frequency of use in daily conversation and the linguistic complexity of expressive elements favored by speakers.

Language Switching and Mixing

Sociolinguistic description of bilingual discourse suggests the frequent use of code-switching and code-mixing (Bhatia & Ritchie, 1996). The former involves language switches occurring at sentence boundaries (e.g., I'm hungry pero no quiero comer, I'm hungry but I don't want to eat); the latter includes language switches taking place within clause or sentence boundaries (e.g., Ella está very happy, She is very happy). Though the distinction between switching and mixing is controversial, both expressive devices constitute a trademark of proficient bilinguals (Bhatia & Ritchie, 1996). Effective control of language switching (LS) and language mixing (LM) is a requirement for bilinguals, especially for pragmatically appropriate language selection in monolingual and bilingual discourse. Brain damage may impair control mechanisms and lead to pathological LS and LM.

Different approaches have been proposed to account for normal and pathological language switching. Among them, the lesion approach examines the impact of brain damage on LS, whereas the cognitive approach describes LS in terms of cognitive operations or processing requirements. More recently, the neurocognitive approach emphasizes how processing devices map onto neuroanatomical sites (Green, 1986, 2005).

A neurocognitive model of control in bilingual language switching can be useful in analyzing and treating pathological switching in bilingual patients with aphasia. This model suggests that control of the bilingual language system, including language switching, may be affected when brain damage impairs the necessary cognitive operations.

Ansaldo and Marcotte (2007) relied on this concept to plan treatment for a Spanish-English individual with aphasia.. The patient used switching as a strategy to overcome anomia (word retrieval problems) but did not have voluntary control over his LM and LS, even with monolingual partners. The patient, however, could translate better than he could name specific items. According to the neurocognitive model, the patient's involuntary impairment in LM and LS affected the lexical level (i.e., anomia) and the L1-L2 control level (i.e., involuntary mixing and switching). The word-retrieval deficit, combined with possible problems in the mechanisms that control inhibition, resulted in switching from one language to the other.

Translation and switching were integrated into a treatment program based on a neurocognitive strategy that would enhance voluntary switching. Translation was a useful compensatory technique for treatment because translational abilities are less impaired than other linguistic skills in bilinguals with aphasia (Paradis, 2004), as the patient exhibited. Switching aimed to increase control by systematically manipulating the impaired use of this behavior. Prior to treatment, the patient was tested in noun and verb naming, repetition, and translation of the same items from Spanish to English, and vice versa.

A "Switch Back through Translation" (SBT) approach integrated translation and switching into treatment. SBT transformed pathological LS and LM into translation by cueing the patient to provide the closest equivalent of a noun or a verb in the other language whenever he erred on language selection. The increased awareness and control in switching improved his communication abilities, as the patient gradually learned to translate independently and shifted to the appropriate language. It also facilitated his word-
finding abilities.

A theory-based neurocognitive intervention that connects cognitive operations and discourse features may be useful in cases of impaired switching in bilinguals with aphasia. This strategy targets impaired neurocognitive factors (i.e., attention and control) while simultaneously relying on translation to address the impaired use of discourse features in bilinguals (i.e., LM and LS) to optimize communication.

Ethnography and Dementia

The tradition of ethnographic research focuses on describing a culture's patterns of behavior, norms, and beliefs, among other characteristics, from the perspective of its members (Hymes, 1972a, b; 1974). Ethnographers observe and record patterns of social and communicative behaviors in relation to a specific situation or a specific stimulus. The ethnography of communication (EC) provides a systematic investigation of patterns in language use in interaction. It also provides a descriptive, analytical framework for the communication context and for the participants, their social roles and their impact on the interaction. A central tenet of this approach is that communication is an act that reveals a speech community's attitudes and beliefs (Guendouzi & Müller, 2006).

The clinical benefits of EC can be used in treatment of individuals with communication disorders, as shown in the interactions with patients with dementia. Beliefs about dementia may affect the way in which a society reacts to and cares for—or doesn't care for—individuals with dementia. These beliefs then give rise to a culture of stereotypes that include negative views of aging. When we interact with people who have dementia, we may bring cultural expectations (e.g., the belief that all people with dementia are aggressive) to the interaction. Such cultural expectations may frame the way people, including clinicians and relatives, approach the person with dementia and influence how they communicate with that person. Indeed, it may be that our beliefs about dementia inadvertently cause us to interact in ways that are less than optimal for treatment.

Acknowledging ethnographic and sociolinguistic factors broadens our interpretation of language development/impairment and psycholinguistic processing in young and adult speakers, and our understanding of practitioner/relative-client interactions. As these examples have shown, important relationships exist between ethnographic factors (e.g., language practices in Hispanic individuals) and sociolinguistic dimensions (e.g., discourse patterns); both areas have relevance to linguistic profiles (e.g., language delay, language attrition, and aphasia) and processing domains (i.e., linguistic and cognitive operations).

Although the use of ethnography and sociolinguistics is not new in speech-language pathology (e.g., Simmons-Mackie & Damico, 1999; Washington & Craig, 1994; Westby, 1994), an increased application of interdisciplinary and innovative approaches to the study of communication disorders is needed (e.g., Centeno et al., 2007; Code, 2001; Silliman, 2007).

Ethnographic and sociolinguistic analysis provides valuable insights into the complex interactions of culture, language, communication, and cognition. Understanding how these factors relate to research in our discipline can strengthen the development of sound experimental methodology, ecologically valid theoretical accounts, and realistic evidence-based practices. Given our increasingly diverse clinical caseloads, such strategies are imperative.

This article is based on a presentation by the authors at the 2006 ASHA Convention.

José G Centeno, is an associate professor in the Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Program in the Department of Speech, Communication Sciences, and Theatre at St. John's University. Contact him at centenoj@stjohns.edu.

Raquel T Anderson, is an associate professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at Indiana University. Contact her at raanders@indiana.edu.

M. Adelaida Restrepo, is an associate professor in the Speech and Hearing Science Department at Arizona State University. Contact her at laida.restrepo@asu.edu.

Peggy F Jacobson, is an assistant professor in the Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Program in the Department of Speech, Communication Sciences, and Theatre at St. John's University. Her research is supported by an NIH grant. Contact her at jacobsop@stjohns.edu.

Jackie Guendouzi, is an associate professor in the Speech-Language Pathology Department at the University of South Alabama. Contact her at jguendouzi@usouthal.edu.

Nicole Müller, is an associate professor and Hawthorne Endowed Professor in Communicative Disorders at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Contact her at nmueller@louisiana.edu.

Ana Inés Ansaldo, is an associate professor at the École d'Orthophonie et Audiologie de l'Université de Montréal, Quebec, Canada. Contact her at ana.ines.ansaldo@umontreal.ca.

Karine Marcotte, is a speech-language pathologist and PhD candidate at the biomedical sciences program of the Université de Montréal, Quebec, Canada. Contact her at karine.marcotte@umontreal.ca.

cite as: Centeno, J. G. , Anderson, R. T. , Restrepo, M. A. , Jacobson, P. F. , Guendouzi, J. , Müller, N. , Ansaldo, A. I.  & Marcotte, K. (2007, July 17). Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Aspects of Communication: Research-Praxis Relationships. The ASHA Leader.

Ethnography of Communication: A Person-Centered Approach

Ethnography of communication relies on systematic person-centered descriptions of patterns of linguistic form, pragmatic usage, and social function. Consider a visit by a graduate student to a nursing home to collect data for a project on dementia. Hymes (1972a, b)
summarized the major ethnographic factors involved in analyzing a speech situation through the use of the anagram SPEAKING.

  • Setting: The resident's room in the nursing home
  • Participants: A person with dementia and a graduate student in speech-language pathology 
  • Ends (goals): These are difficult to ascertain in the case of the person with dementia. However, the graduate student has both overt goals (e.g., to learn about the resident's life, and to spend time visiting with him/her) and covert goals (e.g., to collect data in order to study and treat dementia)
  • Acts sequence: The types of communication used (e.g., a question-answer format)
  • Key: Whether the interaction is informal or formal
  • Instrumentality: The mode of communication (e.g., conversation or sign language)
  • Norms: Polite conversation
  • Genre: Possibly a friendly chat or "small talk"

An ethnographic approach allows the clinician to consider the communicative behaviors the patient or client manifests based upon his or her communication status and the situational and environmental factors that influence the interaction. This approach can be applied to all speakers interacting with people with communication disorders.


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