Language Ideologies and Emojis.
We looked at two aspects of language use among Swarthmore College students: (1) learning another language and (2) using emoji. Since all Swarthmore students have a language learning requirement for graduation and many (if not all) are fluent users of electronic devices, we expected to see a wide variety of ideologies regarding these two specific types of communication.
Understanding this context, we administered surveys to assess how our peers' communication - both studied languages and the more informal, digital emojis - is impacted by their biases and stereotypes. We asked questions about how students perceived the use of a second language or emoji as well as their personal habits for using emoji and reasoning for learning a second language.
Unpacking Language Ideology in the Swarthmore Speech Community.
Second languages (or L2s) are defined as any language learned by an individual that is not their native tongue. These actually have a major impact in their students’ lives - research has shown that students’ experiences in foreign language classrooms can affect their overall comfort with and perception of a certain language and culture, their confidence in their language skills, and their long term academic/career plans . Every Swarthmore student that Emilie interviewed indicated that their perception of a certain language or culture had changed for the better after studying it as an L2; they cited second languages as expanding their career opportunities, improving their English skills, and allowing them to connect with family members and new communities of people.
We found that every student Rebecca interviewed used emoji in some unique ways, showing elements of syntax or semantics present in a more conventional language. For instance, this specific order 😎👉👉 indicated “finger guns” for two separate people; others said they strictly never combine more than one emoji or place emoji in sentences. At the same time, of the two students who use that combination, one said she uses it when their conversation partner has made a poor choice and the other said he uses it as an affirmation akin to “go get ‘em, kiddo”, showing semantic variation– near opposite meanings for the same linguistic signs!
Several of the students Emilie spoke to believed that studying an L2 allowed them access to speech communities they could not otherwise have integrated; in particular, speakers of more “obscure” languages, such as Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, found online communities of like-minded individuals. They formed lasting bonds over their common interest in these second languages, and what began as study groups and word forums turned into online friendships. In much the same way, emojis allow members of speech communities to connect and express themselves through digital media. Rebecca found that many students used emoji out of necessity, seeing them as a way to convey emotions or connotations that are usually lost in text-only communication.
Why Language Ideology Matters 🤔
How do our perceptions of languages in all their forms - text, spoken words, pictures - tie in to larger issues of culture and communication? In our research, we found a pretty deep divide - emojis are used by two-thirds of the students we interviewed, yet some revile them. Many Swatties and their families agree that studying a second language is useful, but are divided as to which are more ”practical” or “worth learning.”
We found that ultimately, Swarthmore students represent a wide variety of opinions and backgrounds. With language increasingly made a political tool, we have to ask: what standards, if any, can be applied to determine what is or isn’t a “worthy” language?
 Dray, S. (2011). Ideological Struggles on Signage in Jamaica. In A. Jaworski & C. Thurlow (Eds.), Semiotic Landscapes: Language, Image, Space (pp. 102-122).
 Regan, V. (2014, November 21). What your speaking style, like, says about you | Vera Regan | TEDxDublin. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAGgKE82034
 Anya, U. (2011). Connecting With Communities of Learners and Speakers: Integrative Ideals, Experiences, and Motivations of Successful Black Second Language Learners. Foreign Language Annals, 44(3), pp. 441-466
About the Authors.
Emilie Hautemont is another Swarthmore sophomore, studying French and English literature. Linguistics is a great outlet for her to feel angsty about her bilingual education. She likes baking and making her canary sing along to rude songs.