Betsy Rymes

Diggit profile: Betsy Rymes on citizen sociolinguistics

Jan Blommaert

Betsy Rymes is Professor of Educational Linguistics at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania. Over the last handful of years, she has been instrumental in the creation and development of what is now called 'citizen sociolinguistics' - an innovation in the field in which online data are extensively used as evidence of how language and language usage are being understood and made meaningful socially.

Discovering what language is about

Jan Blommaert: Betsy, you started your professional life as a middle school teacher and, after that, a TESOL instructor. It's safe to say that your roots, so to speak, are in applied linguistics and more in particular in issues of language and education. Now, we know that the language learning environment is in a continuous state of flux, with learners complementing the formal classroom learning environments with rich online informal learning tools and practices. How did you experience this transition?

Betsy Rymes: Initially when I began teaching middle-school English Learners in Los Angeles, I thought I was bringing them a great resource – “The English Language” — a bridge to opportunity. I soon learned that I wasn’t the one teaching them English at all, and my version of English might not say “opportunity” to them.  The language they were learning came from their peers, in the lunchroom, the playground, their neighborhood, music (N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” was a big hit at the time), etc. As a novice teacher, however, an English Literature major, my teaching took a pretty standardized approach, and this took most of my time and attention. I had few opportunities to learn more about the kinds of language learning experiences these kids had outside of school — or even, in the less formal spaces within my classroom. That is to say: I didn’t take time to look up and see the ways they were using language around me, with each other, around town, and without any of my assistance. I didn’t talk to them about their musical tastes, their artwork and graffiti, their friends—or even about what they thought about language.

Kids are not only learning about language — but they are also forming opinions about that language.

So when I went to graduate school and began doing research in classrooms and schools, my goal was to take advantage of the participant-observer role: Freed from the pressure of classroom teaching, I was able to look up and see what kids were doing, to talk to them and to ask questions about their lives, and to hear stories I never had time to delve into as a teacher. I was able to start seeing “Language learning” as part of these kids’ lives, 24/7, in and out of class, and to explore the effects of that environment on kids’ development. As you say, the language learning environment is in a constant state of flux, and as a graduate researcher then, and ever since, throughout in my career as a professor and researcher, I have been engaged in exploring  the more organic ways we learn language — in conversations with each other, but also on-line, and through social media.

Jan Blommaert: And it’s not just language that they are learning in that way.

Betsy Rymes: Indeed — very important! — in all these changing environments, kids are not only learning about language — but they are also forming opinions about that language! As I mentioned already, the middle-schoolers I taught in Los Angeles weren’t learning English from me, and the English I spoke had little value for most of them. They wanted to join their peers in the neighborhood, to speak like them.  But we never had conversations about these different “Englishes” — or what they could do for kids.  If only I could have talked with those kids then about language and their own views on different ways of speaking — rather than just trying to teach them one version of English.

Now my goal has become to bring those conversations about language back into the classroom. Teachers do not need to be vessels of standardization. But, having been an English teacher myself, I understand the pressure and momentum that leads to that stance. Now, I would like to convince teachers they can also take on the “participant-observer” stance and free themselves up from projecting simply one ideology about language — the standardized approach. Teachers have the opportunity to be facilitators of conversations about language, building language awareness among students, so that we all can take in the language flux around us—learn from it, and use it to build connections across communities, starting with connections between teachers and students.

We shouldn’t be teaching English (or any other language) as if it is a dead language, like Latin.

Jan Blommaert: I sense a pedagogical strategy here with both of its feet firmly planted in real-life experience and encounters. Were there any particular sources of inspiration that helped you come around to this strategy?

Betsy Rymes: My experiences as a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at UCLA were eye-opening for me. One of the first Applied Linguistics articles I read was published in the inaugural issue of our student-run journal in 1990.  (Yikes! This was a long time ago!) The article was called “Towards a Critical Applied Linguistics for the 1990s”, written by Alastair Pennycook. I was thrilled!  This article addressed all the anxieties I had been experiencing as a teacher of English for both kids and adults in Los Angeles. Pennycook’s argument was this: we can’t teach “English” uncritically, as if it is some neutral resource that will help people.  We need to understand the political, cultural, social context of English teaching. 

Building on this Pennycook revelation, I also began to learn about the detailed interactional context and consequences of any language use. In Elinor Ochs’ course on Discourse Analysis, every day of which was eye-opening for me, I first learned about Pierre Bourdieu. His concept of “habitus” and the fine-grained details of sociality that both build societal norms and systematically exclude some from participation, seemed to account for exactly all that we do NOT pay attention to in a formal and standardized approach to education.  I began to think about how it is that kids manipulate the habitus — subtly shifting societal patterns through their gentle and persistent nudging at norms. 

The strength of some of these opinions make vivid how much our social life is shaped by language, but also by the conversations we have about language.

I also then began to read a lot more literature about “kids hanging out.” Ben Rampton’s book, Crossing, came out and was inspirational. I wanted to study all the important way kids use language — ways that are hidden in the margins of schools and classrooms, but are intertwined with all that social, political, and cultural context that Pennycook was concerned with in “a critical applied linguistics for the 90s”. I decided my research, then, would be to study the contexts in which kids were being socialized into using English in schools, but not necessarily in the classroom. I wanted to do research in the lunchroom, or recess, or any informal spaces where kids talk to each other.  Fortunately, my advisor, Elinor Ochs, encouraged me to do just that, and the kids I ended up following through my Master’s and then my PhD dissertation research were my next great source of inspiration. 

Encounters with citizen sociolinguistics

Jan Blommaert: In recent years, you’ve been deeply invested in the development of what is now known as “citizen sociolinguistics”, and I see this as a major innovation. You and your colleagues draw on widely available, and often online sources in which lay people discuss language choice, accent, discourse styles and so forth, and you take these materials seriously. You also run a fantastic blog on this topic. How did you get from the critical applied linguistics you just mentioned to citizen sociolinguistics?

Betsy Rymes:  Thanks!  I’m always thrilled to get feedback about the blog and even more excited when I see people taking up issues raised there. The most seemingly mundane posts often generate the most commentary — for example, posts on the range of opinions about how to say the word “succinct” or how to pronounce “croissant” in an American context.  These posts are often sparked by my own astonishment at the opinions I hear about language from my friends and colleagues. The strength of some of these opinions make vivid how much our social life is shaped by language, but also by the conversations we have about language. Opinions like these become reality for most language users and matter more in practice than what any PhD expert might have to add to the topic. These everyday conversations about language are the stuff of “citizen sociolinguistics” — or, to borrow a phrase from 1960s media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” This talk ABOUT language is both the medium AND the message of citizen sociolinguistics. The expertise about language (the message) is not located in the analysis of that language by a PhD-certified researcher, but in the conversation itself (the medium).  

And, you’re right of course, this citizen sociolinguistic perspective is a departure from the “critical applied linguistics” perspective I “grew up with” as a PhD student. I was trained to gather data from everyday conversations and from ethnographic immersion in a context and then to use that material to build an argument about language and social life. As I learned about language socialization, interactional sociolinguistics, the role of indexicality in all communication, I was enchanted by the “empiricism” of discourse analysis, the idea that by looking closely at talk and context, I would be able to see and to show others the reproduction of societal norms and the possibility to nudge at those and break them down.  

Our “analysis” was simply the act of showing that material to people who may not have seen it before — other academics.

But over and over, especially as, starting about 10-15 years ago, the internet became a popular medium for analysis of language data, I found that I was hearing conference presentations and reading academic papers that presented conversations about language as data and as analysis.  We academics were positioned as experts, discussing YouTube videos about varieties of English, new viral dance moves, or comedy routines lampooning certain ways of speaking, but more and more, I began to see that the expertise was already laid out in the everyday commentary on those language displays—in the commentary below a YouTube post, or the response-videos and memes following a political speech.  Many conference presentations seemed to be just ventriloquating what we saw in these conversations. Our “analysis” was simply the act of showing that material to people who may not have seen it before — other academics. The real work, it seemed, was being done by those internet conversations — by those I call citizen sociolinguists and not by people in the role of linguistic anthropologist, sociolinguist, linguistic ethnographer, or even critical applied linguist. The citizen sociolinguists were supplying the language expertise and providing insight into the social value of language in context. If we wanted to extract a message from that medium for a conference presentation, all we had to do was look for it in what those citizen sociolinguistic experts were already saying:  The medium became the message.

Jan Blommaert: It’s a matter of legitimacy in performing analysis, isn’t it?

Betsy Rymes: Mind you, I still appreciate skilled analysis of talk and interaction from a trained critical applied linguist or linguistic anthropologist or linguistic ethnographer, or even a straight-up linguist — every perspective offers new insight.  And certain contexts benefit from the authority of a trained researcher — I’m thinking, for example, of your accounts of asylum interviews. Your perspective as a critical linguist added an important dimension of understanding to how injustice was perpetrated through those interviews! But, after my recognition that citizen sociolinguistic expertise flows incessantly from the internet and reproduces itself, creating its own truth in everyday conversations around us, there is really no going back to the idea that the perspective from an academic researcher is necessarily the most relevant, accurate, or revealing point of view about a given “empirical” slice of language.

Citizen sociolinguistics as online political analysis

Jan Blommaert: Your blog features a number of texts on citizen sociolinguists’ take on political discourse in the US, and there is plenty of that in the current presidential electoral campaigns, of course. Now, we know that such political discourses have substantially changed, and that,  for instance, memes and other forms of typically online discourse features are crucial instruments in contemporary political communication. How do citizen sociolinguists handle this? Can we use citizen sociolinguistics to get an angle on how such new discourse features have an impact? Or lack an impact?

Betsy Rymes:  I’m glad we’re taking off on a discussion of the Internet as a medium!  For citizen sociolinguists, not only is the medium the message, the medium is the method too!  And, when talking about interaction online, citizen sociolinguists don’t only analyze language or talk about words, they also carefully examine videos and make sense of all the features of communication that influence how an interaction unfolds — commenting on and arguing over, as ethnomethodologists would say, “Why this now?” and, socioculturally, “What’s going on?” 

Researching language in the 1990’s, I remember spending hours in the Discourse Lab, editing video, transcribing, and watching and re-watching segments to understand precisely the sequence of actions and their impact on other speakers. Now, I see citizen sociolinguists recirculate segments, adding their analysis of the sequential unfolding of events, of the relevance of context, of the social histories of the speakers with the same level of perception and interest — but sharing those perspectives across twitter in a matter of seconds.  Recently, for example, in the United States, Trump gave the state of the union address and noticeably turned away from Nancy Pelosi, precisely in the moment she extended her hand for a ceremonial handshake. This split second of interactional trouble was instantly circulated, analyzed, and interpreted by people across the globe.

Enter “Trump Pelosi Handshake” in your google search and you will find a wealth of insight about that micro-incident. 

But you were also asking about whether any of this has impact. Who cares if someone circulates this handshake snub? This micro moment might seem trivial, but the fact that people have seen it around the globe and voiced their opinions about it is not, because the medium of the internet is not only method and message, but also a means of dissemination. Internet-circulated social media build content through feedback loops, exponentially ramping up a powerful circulation tool that TV or everyday conversation have in only small amounts by comparison. In the non-internet social world, we might think of feedback loops as the spread of information by word of mouth: “he told two friends, and he told two friends, and so on and so on.” A message delivered via conversation may spread widely through the grapevine — and, like internet messages, it may morph and change and even ruin someone’s entire life. But this same power of the grapevine expands across the globe and far beyond your social circle once the Internet is involved. Popular messages rise to the top of a google search. Enter “Trump Pelosi Handshake” in your google search and you will find a wealth of insight about that micro-incident.  Once a conversation gets taken up by the feedback loop machine of internet circulation, citizens who add their perspective to that conversation have an audience, and set of interlocutors, that extends far beyond their usual circle of friends.

Jan Blommaert: True, it’s super fascinating to see the micromonitoring of message behavior on social media, and how this becomes a tool for online political communication.

Betsy Rymes: Isn’t it? And to really focus the question of impact, let’s turn to the current democratic primaries in the US presidential race: In the race for the democratic nomination, we are desperately trying to find someone to beat Trump. Candidates are rising and falling in the polls at lightning pace. Most recently, Joe Biden has fallen from the top of the pile, largely, it seems, due to the way citizen sociolinguists out there have made sense of and recirculated their impression of him as “inarticulate,” as evidenced by video clips and transcripts played again and again, reanalyzed again and again, interpreted and then recirculated for more opinion. Whether or not he is verifiably, ‘diagnosably’ inarticulate or even losing his marbles is less important than the incessant circulation of those clips and that message, and the feedback loops reinforcing it — creating a reality in which Biden is too old, too addled, and unable to stand up to Trump.  Experts have given Biden and his brain a clean bill of health, but that has far less impact than the recirculated clips and analysis of citizen sociolinguists. 

Jan Blommaert: They are relentless in picking up such things for commentary and criticism.

Betsy Rymes: Well, let’s consider just for fun, another situation unfolding as we speak: Billionaire and former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a new entry into our Democratic primaries, has already spent hundreds of millions of his fortune on TV ads, and he has been rising steadily in the polls. It looks like he may be able to use traditional media to buy name recognition and his way onto the Democratic ticket.  But messages have new ways of circulating now — TV ads ain’t everything.  Internet-circulated social media has launched a powerful counter campaign. One of my favorite anti-Bloomberg memes features the phrase “OK BLOOMER!” – a pun on another recent and important meme, “OK BOOMER,” and a tacit nod to the fact that Bloomberg is of the “baby boomer generation,” in his late 70’s, and as such, likely to be out of touch. The meme usually pairs this phrase with a picture of clearly aging and corporately suited-up Michael Bloomberg.  This meme, both linguistically and imagistically, puts Bloomberg in his place and circulates widely among a demographic who likely will find his campaign distasteful when it’s presented this way.  Of course, the race will probably take another turn (or several) still, but the battle of the memes is on—their impact will be unfolding swiftly, and participation is wide open!

Whose language gets represented?

Jan Blommaert: Isn’t this riveting? But daunting too, from the viewpoint of the analyst, isn’t it? We’re now looking at volumes of discourse never witnessed before, and so the question arises: how do we say something sensible about such phenomena? How can we be, say, ‘representative’ in the work we do whenever we work on such phenomena?

Betsy Rymes: That’s a good question —and a funny one! There’s no way we could ever identify a ‘representative’ swatch of anything broadly generalizable by following the trails of citizen sociolinguists through the internet. To the contrary:  My greatest hope is that we, as researchers, can invite more voices into the discussion and hear perspectives on language we’ve never considered before—voices that we might silence through omission by trying to get a “representative” sample.  Because we are ignorant about what we are trying to represent!

Jan Blommaert: Being ‘representative’ in another sense, that is?

Betsy Rymes: That's right. That said, we don’t need to give ourselves up to ever-expanding confusion! In discussing citizen sociolinguistics, we are focusing on one definable speech event: how people talk ABOUT communication. Professors of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics are not the only people who like to talk about and study language. Everyone does it, every day. But when citizen sociolinguists talk about language, their interests are not primarily to contribute to academic conversations. They are interested in acting accountably in their own social world. Sometimes people are scolding each other or critiquing someone’s use of language. Other times, people are marveling in the language variation around them, lamenting their own limitations.

But the ways people scold or marvel, and the conversations that ensue, build their own reality. To give a very simple example: If I repeatedly hear that saying the word “irregardless” makes people sound ignorant, I’m going to stop using it. And so, when we take a look at the way citizen sociolinguists talk about language, how they define the words that make their world, we can gain a lot of insight into how language and social life link up, and how social change happens in the process. Our role as analysts is not to give the bottom line, or to cordon off a representative swatch, but to follow the conversation and take note — and to join in and see what happens.

There is no “correct” way of shaking Trump’s hand or using Spanish in a political debate or using gendered pronouns or even accounting for the word “irregardless.”

Jan Blommaert: This is a research agenda you sketch, but also an agenda for public debate and for education, am I correct?

Betsy Rymes: I’m suggesting that part of schooling involve exploring these discussions about language. First, by noticing when they are happening, then noting the ways people participate in them. Too often, school is positioned as the arbiter of one standardized and essentialized understanding of correct ways of speaking. But there is no “correct” way of shaking Trump’s hand or using Spanish in a political debate or using gendered pronouns or even accounting for the word “irregardless.” Rather, there are extended discussions of these events and ways of speaking. Schools should engage students in these conversations about language, and recognize the power young people have to shape their own world through this type of inquiry.

Now, with the internet, we can see that kids, in the role of citizen sociolinguists, already are having these conversations and honing those inquiry skills outside of school. But too often, teachers and schools are scared to have conversations with kids about language, especially if it means talking about and exploring — gasp! — social media. But talking about language, inviting everyone to talk about the way they speak in different contexts, is one of the easiest entry points to talking about difference.  Have kids look up words they don’t know, or they’ve been mocked for — use Google, use, ask a linguist, use whatever information out there is available.Then talk about what they find!

We shouldn’t be teaching English (or any other language) as if it is a dead language, like Latin. Nor should we be teaching that language change happens through unconscious processes over which students have no control, processes that only linguists can study. But to avoid either of those traps, students need to be let loose,and, as citizen sociolinguists, to explore how lively language is, how layered the communication is around them, and to discuss their findings in educational settings. Students, kids, especially, should be encouraged to participate in this riveting and daunting endeavor — noticing and talking about language around them and the language questions they most care about, in their communities, and on the Internet. And then, their insights need to be recognized. It’s a matter of making science democratic, if you wish.

Jan Blommaert; Now the question is, how can we possibly, realistically, convince schools and educators, guardians of the status quo, that these crazy, fun, and sometimes irreverent activities around language should be part of classroom learning? 

Betsy Rymes: That’s where I believe my role as an educational linguist might be able to contribute something.  By going into classrooms and having these conversations myself, by talking to students and faculty, in both formal research interviews and informal chats, I hope to learn more and spread the word about the massive insight to be cultivated among students across all demographics in our schools.  So, even though citizen sociolinguists are going about doing work that linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, and critical applied linguists used to claim for themselves — we researchers with a PhD still have a lot of work to do! We can research what citizen sociolinguists are saying and spread the word: People everywhere are talking about language and what they say matters in language.