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Sociolinguistics in Spain

May 20, 2019

When Carol Ready was growing up in a small town in Nebraska, she wanted to learn Spanish so she could become friends with a new classmate who immigrated from Mexico. Now she is not only fluent in Spanish, but is working on her dissertation research in Granada, Spain, analyzing the context and role of language use on Moroccan immigrants’ participation in society.

Mónica de la Fuente Iglesias’s dissertation research comes from a similar connection to her youth. She grew up in Galicia, an autonomous community in Spain, and is conducting her dissertation research on the vowel variation in Galician Spanish, which she analyzes for contact effects from Galician. Both of these scholars’ studies focus on sociolinguistics in minority-language communities and will give insight on topics that currently have limited research.

Photo of Carol Ready

Ethnographic Research in Spain

At the core of Ready’s research are the dynamic factors of language, identity, and ideology, and how they intersect. Moroccan immigrants are the largest migrant community in Spain, and they are often the ones most discriminated against in the housing and job markets. Moroccans in Spain regularly speak with linguistic features (words, sounds, and grammar) from Spanish, French, English, Berber (Amazigh languages), and Arabic (standard and Moroccan). Ready wants to discover how this fluid language use and identity construction play into Moroccan immigrants’ participation in Spain’s society.

“Basically what I'm trying to understand is the sociopolitical realities of the [Moroccan] immigrant communities, which move back and forth from Morocco to Spain, and different parts of both countries,” she says. “You have a variety of different languages being used in the community… How is this all culminating in their language use day to day, and how does it relate to their identity negotiation and construction?”

An example of this comes from a woman Ready met in Spain. The woman was born in Morocco but spends most of her time in Spain. When she returns to Morocco, people ask where she’s from—and then, where she’s really from. She feels as though she is from both countries, but because of this questioning, she does not feel accepted in either place. This woman’s predicament is telling because people make assumptions about her based on her accent and how she uses language, and these beliefs affect how she moves about the world.

While Ready lives alongside the community that she is researching, she interviews people and observes social events, as well as day-to-day activities. As a participant observer, she is able to listen to how her subjects use language in their daily lives—how they speak with parents versus siblings and others in the community. “When you're an ethnographer, you're the research instrument,” she says. Along with 50 other interviewees, there is a set group of five individuals she meets with every month. Recording conversations with the permission of these five focal participants allows her to gather the natural language data that will inform her research.

When Moroccans migrate to Spain, there is an idea that they need to assimilate, which often means giving up their language and cultural practices. Ready finds this problematic. “I want multilingualism and multiculturalism to be more valued, particularly in the education system and society in general,” she says.

Ready would also like to influence policy with her research. “A lot of times in language policy, sociolinguistic descriptions are used to justify certain policy practices,” she says. Ready hopes that her findings will ignite positive multicultural and multilingual language policies and create a more just society.

Photo of Monica de la Fuente Iglesias

Variationist Research in Spain

De la Fuente’s research focuses on a more established community in Spain: Galicians. In this autonomous community, Galician and Spanish have been in close contact from the early 13th century, and Galician was recognized as a co-official language with Spanish, following the linguistic oppression of Franco’s fascist regime. For her dissertation, de la Fuente is investigating the vowel patterns of different types of Galician-Spanish bilingual speakers and whether they use the Galician vowel system, which has seven vowels instead of Spanish’s five, when speaking Spanish.

In addition, she is looking into the attitudes surrounding that Spanish variety. In Galician, the use of a seven-vowel system is seen as a feature of belonging that portrays the more authentic Galician speakers, whereas historically, a Galician-accented Spanish has been stigmatized. She wants to find out if vowel variants in Galician Spanish have any social meaning, such as whether speakers associate a particular vowel with a rural/urban origin, formal/informal speech or a higher/lower level of education. She is also looking at several sociolinguistic factors like gender, age, and the level of exposure to Galician to understand how vowel variation is distributed, which can shed light on how changes develop and spread within the community.

Last summer, de la Fuente collected data from 62 speakers after interviewing people aged 18–87 in a semi-urban community, where the presence of the regional language is strong. She is looking into whether there are generational differences in linguistic patterns, which may be interpreted as potential changes in progress in the language.

“We're seeing that in the urban areas, bilingual speakers are not using a seven-vowel system in Galicia, while in semi-urban areas, some speakers are preserving it and at the same time transferring to their other language,” she explains. “So what I'm trying to understand is the relationship between language change and speakers’ identity and to see if this feature is going to be disappearing. It might disappear in the coming decades.”

This topic is close to home for de la Fuente, since she grew up in Galicia, speaking both Galician and Spanish. By documenting and analyzing the regional Spanish of Galicia she hopes that her research will draw more attention from both researchers and the public to this understudied Spanish variety. “My research will help us understand the social and attitudinal factors that lead to the maintenance of regional linguistic variants in the context of minority languages in Europe,” says de la Fuente.

Embracing a Diversity of Languages, Dialects, & Cultures

Both de la Fuente and Ready strive to defend multilingualism and multiculturalism by preserving language—de la Fuente’s in the form of Galician Spanish and Ready’s in the form of Moroccan Arabic.

Just as Ready wanted to learn Spanish to communicate with a friend when she was young, the work of these two scholars demonstrates that language brings people together. “That’s why I love language in the first place—because I can talk to people,” says Ready. “I get to know their background and their experiences.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.