Social Networks

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Language surveyors rarely assess social networks directly. But social networks play a great part in influencing language and therefore in determining the outcome of language development programmes.

Particularly if we are involved in informing strategies which involve clusters of communities, we need to be able to assess the extent to which communities can and do work together. In addition, it is essential that communities take ownership of the development of their own languages. A good understanding of the social networks that exist in a community can give some indication as to whether that community will, as a whole, engage with a development programme. At this level, we would be looking at the kinds of connections that exist among communities. These connections are significant contacts or exchanges that affect the social cohesion or interdependence in an area. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, some connections indicative of social networks might be bride exchange, trade of material goods, cultural commonalities, church or government structure, or historical enemy relationships.<ref>Rueck 2006:56-61</ref> In other areas, however, the most important social connections may be different. These factors can also show us how much language contact groups have had with one another based on how much social contact they have.

Social networks can also be analyzed on an individual level to measure language vitality. This approach examines the kinds of connections existing among individuals in a language community; often, the more connections people within the community have with one another (rather than with those outside the community), the greater the language vitality.<ref>Landweer 2000</ref>


  • The SIL language survey team in Papua New Guinea have developed and are trialling a Community Connection Tool using Participatory Methods. This is in order to assess how multiplex the social networks of a particular community may be. In addition, the tool is also intended to reveal attitudes toward different surrounding communities through the process of evaluating those they feel they have the best connection with. This tool was developed to provide data to inform language project managers about the potential of particular communities to participate in multi-language projects.
  • Sociolingustic interviews or questionnaires can also reveal a great deal about social networks. See the Questionnaires page for an example of a Contact Pattern Questionnaire which would provide data about social networking.


Graham, Steve and Trina

1997. Social Network Theory: Toward an Application to Sociolinguistics, Language Assessment, and Language Development. Proceedings from SIL International Language Assessment Conference. 6 June, Session V, Paper 2- 1 to 30. Horsleys Green, England: SIL International.
  • One of SIL's seminal works in social network analysis. It measures social networks among individuals (using advanced statistics and charts for analysis) to describe language contact. The methods used would probably take a much longer time to employ than most surveyors have in a particular area.

Landweer, M. Lynn

2000. Indicators of Ethnolinguistic Vitality. Notes on Sociolinguistics 5(1): 5-22. Dallas: SIL International. Accessed April 11, 2011.
  • Uses social network density as a measurement of language vitality.

Rueck, Michael

2006. Social Network Analysis Applied to Language Planning in the Morehead District, Papua New Guinea. MA Thesis, Language Development Department, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.
  • Study on the effectiveness of social network analysis of bride exchange in Papua New Guinea in predicting speech variety boundaries. Also discusses use of this analysis for grouping language areas strategically for cluster projects.

Scott, John.

2000. Social Network Analysis: A Handbook. London: Sage Publications.
  • An accessible book that outlines how different kinds of social networks work and different ways of analyzing them.

Wasserman, Stanley and Katherine Faust

1997. Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Not for the faint of heart.

Language and Social Networks by Lesley Milroy. Google Books Link | Link