In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Socialization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Foundational Scholarship
  • Socializing Routines and Interactions

Anthropology Language Socialization
Kathryn Howard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0111


Language socialization research investigates how the processes of linguistic and cultural development are interlinked, and how these processes vary across cultural contexts. This work aims to illuminate how children and other novices come to master the situated discourse practices of their communities, through longitudinal, ethnographic inquiry featuring detailed analyses of their social interactions with more expert community members in socially and culturally significant activities. Intertwined with such practices are not only linguistic and grammatical forms of language that both reflect and create the social order, but also group- or community-specific ways of engaging in situated and embodied communicative practice, and broader community values, beliefs, and ideologies. Hence, language socialization researchers emphasize how novices are simultaneously socialized “into and through” language and discourse; that is, how they are socialized “into” specific uses of language or other semiotic devices, and “through” language/discourse to become familiar with their community’s ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. This field of scholarly inquiry initially arose in reaction to the failure of cognitive or structuralist conceptions of language to account for (a) the role that language and discourse play within social and cultural transmission, and (b) the role that sociocultural context plays in children’s language acquisition. Drawing upon and paralleling functionalist approaches to language at the time, Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin’s early research project in two distinct non-Western societies challenged the notion that language development could be understood as a purely mental, automatic, or universal process independent of the social and cultural settings in which it takes place. For example, their essay “Language Acquisition and Socialization: Three Developmental Stories” (Ochs and Schieffelin 1984, cited under General Overviews) showed that baby talk—a simplified and/or exaggerated style of speaking with young children—is not a universal feature of mother-child interactions, thus showing that this form of linguistic accommodation could not explain language acquisition, as some researchers had thought. Their research showed that the path of children’s language development, the roles that children played in early interactions, and the types of language or discourse to which they were exposed varied widely across cultures. Shirley Brice Heath’s early work also investigated the culturally variable nature of language development in her longitudinal, ethnographic study of families’ linguistic, discursive, and literacy practices in three ethnic- and class-differentiated communities. Since that time, the field of language socialization has expanded in new directions, while also maintaining a firm commitment to investigating the process by which linguistic, discursive, and literacy practices are maintained, contested, and transformed in cultural groupings of many different scales, from families, to educational institutions, to professional communities, to societies and beyond. At the same time, research in this field has followed trends in anthropology more generally to interrogate the very stability, sharedness, provenance, and ontology of culturally based norms and practices.

General Overviews

In the decades following the foundation of the field, a number of comprehensive overviews of language socialization theory and research have been produced. The field’s founders, Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin, have focused on several different aspects of language socialization (see Ochs and Schieffelin 1984, Schieffelin and Ochs 1986, Ochs and Schieffelin 1995, and Ochs and Schieffelin 2012). Later, Garrett and Baquedano-López 2002 and Kulick and Schieffelin 2004 expanded on significant theoretical and empirical developments in the field through comprehensive reviews of more recent work. Further, Garrett 2008 is an in-depth treatise on research methods for those interested in conducting language socialization research. The most recent overview piece, Ochs and Schieffelin 2012, in particular, outlines important developments to LS theory.

  • Garrett, Paul B. 2008. Researching language socialization. In Encyclopedia of language and education. Vol. 10, Research methods in language and education. 2d ed. Edited by Kendall A. King and Nancy H. Hornberger, 189–201. New York: Springer.

    A useful resource for researchers, this piece offers a detailed primer on research methods in the language socialization framework.

  • Garrett, Paul B., and Patricia Baquedano-López. 2002. Language socialization: Reproduction and continuity, transformation and change. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:339–361.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085352

    This comprehensive and theoretically sophisticated overview of language socialization research outlines developments and expansions that the field had undergone since its original founding work on young children’s interactions in family and community settings. The authors explicate, in particular, how LS theorizes linguistic/cultural stability and change.

  • Kulick, Don, and Bambi B. Schieffelin. 2004. Language socialization. In A companion to linguistic anthropology. Edited by Alessandro Duranti, 349–368. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This recent overview outlines a theory of language socialization as a process of subjective becoming, arguing that language socialization research powerfully illuminates the particular processes by which humans develop into culturally recognizable, socially accountable subjects.

  • Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi B. Schieffelin. 1984. Language acquisition and socialization: Three developmental stories. In Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. Edited by Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. LeVine, 276–320. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This early overview by the founders of the field juxtaposes children’s language development in three vastly different cultural settings, outlining some of the cultural factors that impact language development across cultures, and arguing for a more socioculturally informed picture of language acquisition.

  • Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi B. Schieffelin. 1995. The impact of language socialization on grammatical development. In The handbook of child language. Edited by Paul Fletcher and Brian MacWhinney, 73–94. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This piece explores how children’s acquisition of grammar in language is impacted by the socioculturally variable processes of language socialization across distinct cultural settings.

  • Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi B. Schieffelin. 2012. The theory of language socialization. In The handbook of language socialization. Edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi Schieffelin, 1–21. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Drawing on developments in language socialization since the field’s conception, this recent overview provides an expanded view of the scope, theory, and components (semiotic resources and practices) of language socialization. In particular, it provides renewed theoretical conceptualizations of how and why context and language development are interlinked.

  • Schieffelin, Bambi B., and Elinor Ochs. 1986. Language socialization. Annual Review of Anthropology 15:163–191.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This is the most important early overview of the field, outlining language socialization theory and early findings.

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