There seems to be no agreement as to when language was first used by humans. Some estimates date as far back as two million years ago, during the time of Homo habilis, while others date as recent as forty thousand (40,000) years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man. What is unarguably clear, however, is that language development is a continuous process affected by several social factors and that most contemporary human languages are a blend of several primitive ones. One main feature of human language is arbitrariness of symbols and sounds. A symbol or sound only needs to be attached to a particular concept or meaning, or even applied to the rules of grammar and becomes a part of the language. For instance, while the word 'nada' is conceptualised to mean nothing in the Spanish language, for Croatian speakers, it means 'hope' (Hudson, 2000).
Through the course of this essay, I shall attempt a discourse of the various social factors that come into play in language, within the context of literacy development. In this regard, three students currently undertaking a basic skills "Brush Up Your English" course at Halton College will be used as case studies. After a brief analysis of what has been said and researched on the impact of social factors on language development, I will give a brief account of the backgrounds of the three students in this group, before examining how the duo of region/geography and gender (two main social factors) have affected language development and literacy in these students.
Language and Social Factors
Sociolinguistics are social sciences that consider the interactions between languages and society as a whole. It is an established body of knowledge that studies language on a social basis. Thus, it involves an interest in interaction, variability and diversity in language (Deumert, 2005). Or as described by Trask (1999), it is "the study of variation in language, or more precisely, the variation within speech communities." (Trask, 1999, p.283). This field of interest only dates back to the 1950s, this perhaps explain why most of the social influences on language development are still not fully comprehended. Within the Sociolinguistics school, there are two broad approaches to language variation; prescriptivism and descriptivism.
Prescriptivists tend to be found among the ranks of language educators and journalists, and not in the actual academic discipline of linguistics. They hold clear notions of what is right and wrong and tend to advocate what they consider as 'correct' use of language according to set rules (Hudson, 2000). Describing this school of thought, Thorne (1997) states that
"it is associated with formal written and spoken language and is used in dictionaries, grammar books and language handbooks." (p.92).
To further buttress this point, Thorne (1997) cited the example of the original version of the National Curriculum for schools' emphasis on Standard English (SE) being taught as "the language of wide social communication and was generally required in formal contexts" (p.138).
Descriptivists, on the other hand, do not accept the prescriptivists' notion of "incorrect usage." They prefer to describe such variance as 'non-standard'. Thus, they see Standard English as
"only one variety among manylinguistically speaking it can not legitimately be