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The Role of Sociolinguistics in Federal Survey Development

Yuling Pan

KEY WORDS: Sociolinguistics, non-English speaking households, language and cultural barriers in data collection


With the ever-increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in the United States, the Census Bureau is facing the need to obtain high quality data from non-English speaking households. However, when dealing with Federal surveys, respondents who speak languages other than English do not possess the same set of communication and interaction norms as English speakers. This affects item response and response rates for non-English speaking populations.

This paper discusses the role of sociolinguistics in survey development and data collection. Sociolinguistics studies the interaction between language use and socio-cultural factors. It provides insights on how linguistic and cultural issues influence the way speakers of different languages communicate. This paper explores what sociolinguistic research should be conducted in order to identify language issues and cultural difficulties in survey development and data collection. It focuses on the following three issues:
  • 1. what cultural factors affect language use at the level of words, sentences, and discourse that could be potential problems for speakers of languages other than English to understand survey questions;
  • 2. how different cultural norms of behavior influence non-English speaking respondents’ interaction with survey forms and interviews; and
  • 3. what cross-cultural communication skills field representatives can develop in order to interact successfully with respondents from different cultural groups.
Collecting data through surveys is a communication event that involves the use of language and the understanding of language in its cultural environment. Thus, the aforementioned linguistic and cultural issues need to be addressed in order to overcome barriers in data collection associated with respondents' language use and cultural differences.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Research Division

Created: January 24, 2007
Last revised: January 24, 2007

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Statistical Research Division | (301) 763-3215 (or |   Last Revised: October 08, 2010