Language Socialization by Don Kulick and Bambi B. Schieffelin

Posted on May 30, 2012 by


From Duranti, Alessandro. 2004. A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. John Wiley & Sons.


  • A literature review of socialization and…
  • “we want to illustrate the power of the paradigm by concentrating here on work that demonstrates how different kinds of culturally intelligible subjectivities come into being (p.352).”
  • Examples we have discussed demonstrate some of the contributions that the paradigm can make to social theory, and they show how a focus on language socialization can generate insight into processes that effect not only reproduction, but also change (p.365)
  • Socialization through language, and to use language, consists of empirically delineable understandings
    and practices that are disseminated across social space and enacted in situated
    contexts. To document those understandings and practices, and to see them as
    constitutive of power and invested with structures of feeling, is to chart the processes
    that materialize the social world (p.365)


  • Language socialization is a theoretical and methodological paradigm concerned with the acquisition of what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, or ways of being in the world (p.349)
  • The language socialization paradigm addresses the lack of culture in language acquisition studies, and the absence of language in child socialization studies by insisting that in becoming competent members of their social groups, children are socialized through language, and they are socialized to use language. Hence, language is not just one dimension of the socialization process; it is the most central and crucial dimension of that process (p.350)
  • This was Mead’s concern. But her question, again, was really ‘‘Do people vary cross-culturally?’’ Language socialization studies ask a different question: ‘‘How do different kinds of culturally specific subjectivities come into being?’’ (p.351)
  • In the very first and still best-known anthropological study of socialization (Coming of Age in Samoa), for example, Margaret Mead (1954 [1928]) devoted an entire chapter to ‘‘deviant’’ girls. The problem, however, was the explanation: rather than understanding deviance as something produced by and essential to the social system in which it occurs, analyses like Mead’s saw it as the bubbling up of an individual temperament that for some reason went unsuppressed by the ‘‘patterns of culture’’ into which that individual was born (p.355)
  • Debates about ‘‘persons’’ and ‘‘personhood’’ are anthropological debates, with roots in the Culture and Personality School’s project of showing how different societies promote the development of different temperamental patternsDebates about ‘‘subjects,’’ on the other hand, arise most directly from French post-structuralist thought…these thinkers were all committed to exploring the ways in which individuals not only come to inhabit particular culturally recognizable places in a social system, but also (a) how those places become made available to inhabit in the first place, and (b) how individuals come to desire to inhabit those subject positions, as opposed to others (p.356)
  • Repression is demanded by language: ‘‘in conversing, we also create silences,’’ says Billig (1999: 261)…repression is accomplished in everyday interactions, and he
    examines the ways in which repudiations and disavowals are achieved through avoidances,
    topic changes, and direct commands. (p.356)
  • fears are desires – the desire to avoid shame, embarrassment, danger, punishment, and so on. (p.358)
  • the tendency in therapy is ‘‘to look through language rather than at its forms’’ (Capps and Ochs 1995: 186, emphasis in original).
  • [Capps and Ochs 1995] observe how, together, Meg and Beth construct the perspective that people behave in ways that are incomprehensible – a perspective that directly contributes to an agoraphobic’s fear of
    ever leaving the restricted zone in which she feels safe and secure. (p.361)
  • Deontic conditionals are conditionals in which speakers specify a behavior and then evaluate it as good or bad,
    for example, ‘‘If you do it, it’s good.’’ This linguistic form is extremely frequent in Japanese and Korean adult–child interactions. (p.361)
  • It contrasts with the way in which deontic modality is conveyed in a language like English, where modal or modal-likeforms (such as can, should, may, have to, etc.) are used to convey speaker attitude toward the proposition being expressed. (pp. 361-362)
  • the conditionals, promises, threats, and warnings used by the English speakers often provided children with an explicit reason for complying with the directive that was linked to consequences that they would face (‘‘ . . . I’ll give you a spanking’’). Japanese and Korean adults, on the other hand, did not present children with this kind of information. Instead, they relied on general statements (such as ‘‘ . . . it won’t do,’’ or ‘‘ . . . it’s scary’’), which do not assert what will happen if the child does or does not accede to the adult’s
    command to do, or stop doing, something (p.362)
  • Church services were the primary context in which pastors entrenched the new desires and fears that were required to transform Kaluli women and men into Christian subjects. In some ways, the language socialization strategies in sermons were pragmatically similar to those that were habitually used between caregivers and
    young children…Pastor speech addressed future activities, thoughts, and desires, and it relied heavily on the Kaluli grammatical form of future imperatives (‘‘Think in the future!’’). This stress on the future was part of the Christian message that all actions and desires in the present had direct and
    predictable future consequences (p.362).
  • In addition to a heavy use of future imperatives, a series of new discursive techniques
    were used to convey temporal re-orientation. One striking innovation in this area was the shift from unelaborated, vague, third party threats (e.g., ‘‘someone will say something’’) as the main reason given for prohibitions, to detailed and graphic depictions of the negative consequences that would follow disapproved actions. The emphasis thus shifted from language that foregrounded social relations (anyone
    hearing the threat that ‘‘someone will say something’’ was invited to wonder who might say something and why they might say something) to language that encouraged fear of something intangible and abstract (p.363)
  • Pastors issued conditional threats and warnings that articulated future worlds in which particular antecedent actions (such as not converting to Christianity) would have foreseeable negative consequences – usually painful death, burning Hell, and eternal torture. People were consistently warned against acting proud and strong, and they were warned what would happen if they did not follow Christian messages (p.363)
  • Speech acts such as warnings and promises use specific syntactic devices, in this case, conditionals. Conditionals and the speech acts expressed through them provide a framework for using linguistic and discourse data to tap in to cultural and social categories. (p.364)
  • Cultural strategies of persuasion are linguistically and socially constructed, which means that some social groups may emphasize promising, which expresses positive desires and outcomes, while others may make habitual use of threats and warnings that express negative outcomes. In Bosavi, for example, promising is rare.
    The main form of social control is implicit threats – and it is these that were transformed into explicit threats by evangelist pastors (p.364)
  • In stark contrast to all other speech genres, sermons were monologic. In addition, the behaviors exhorted
    through these monologues were inversions of what Kaluli traditionally valued. Bosavi pastors told people to go around softly and quietly, as though they were sick, so that they could be ‘‘healed.’’ They warned their congregants that displays of assertiveness, pride, competence/strength (halaido:), and anger were barriers to becoming Christian, as were the ways of speaking, such as arguing, that were associated with
    such stances (p.364).