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Definition: foreign language from A Dictionary of Sociolinguistics

A language that is not generally spoken in a particular territory. As there is no opportunity to learn it by ‘natural’ interactive means in this case, it has to be learnt consciously via schooling or special classes. Contrasts with SECOND LANGUAGE, which is an additional language available to learners in a particular territory. Hence French is a foreign language in South Africa, where there is no French-speaking community. It would, however, be learnt as a second language by immigrants in France. In a country formerly ruled by France, and still under French cultural influence, like the Ivory Coast, French is also considered a second language. See also ENGLISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE (X AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE).

Summary Article: language
from The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology

At the core of every culture is language, the collection of words and the rules of syntax and grammar that govern how words are supposed to be arranged in order to convey a particular meaning. Language is central because it is through it that we are able to create the meaning of human experience, thought, feeling, appearance, and behavior. In this sense, language enables us to create reality itself by substituting words for direct experience. When we read a newspaper, we use words to create in our minds what we then take to be knowledge about what is happening in the world. This is no less the case with conversations in which people use words to represent who they are, or with internal conversations in which we think about and reflect upon the reality of ourselves.

Language has several uses in social life. In the most basic sense, it is a medium that enables us to store, manipulate, and communicate knowledge. Speech communities - the collection of all those who share a particular language — also help define the structural boundaries of larger communities such as tribes, ethnic groups, regions, and nations. This is also true to some extent of occupations such as law, science, and medicine (and sociology) whose specialized languages set them apart from outsiders.

In some cases, particular acts of speech, known as performative language, are meaningful actions in themselves. When a bride and groom utter the words "I do" at the appropriate moment in a typical Christian wedding ceremony, they actually perform a meaningful act that changes the nature of their social relationship. The same can be said of "I promise," "I swear," "You're fired," "I quit," and, to some degree, "I apologize" and "I love you" (especially when spoken for the first time). With performative language, to say it is to do it.

The sociological interest in language covers a broad terrain, from the analysis of meaning and conversation to questions about the social construction of reality to the importance of language in the process of socialization and identity formation to the role of language in social inequality and oppression.

See also ethnomethodology; interactionist perspective; mind; phenomenology; semiotics.


Bloomfield, Leonard. [1933] 1951. Language, rev. ed. New York: Holt. Farb, Peter. 1973. Word play: What happens when people talk. New York: Knopf.
 Spender, Dale. 1980. Man-made language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
 Whorf, Benjamin L. 1956. Language, thought and reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Copyright © Allan G Johnson, 1995, 2000. Published by Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000 as The Blackwell Dictionary Of Sociology by Allan G Johnson

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