Bayley's Photo

Dr Robert Bayley’s Talk: Social Conditioning of Subject Pronoun Expression

Interviewing Dr Robert Bayley


Robert Bayley is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at UC Davis and an associate member of the Centre for Research on Language Contact at York University in Toronto. His research focuses on language variation and language socialization, especially in bilingual and second language populations. Professor Bayley is the author of more than 150 publications, including 16 co-authored and co-edited volumes and articles in major journals such as American Speech, Asia-Pacific Language VariationLanguage, Language Variation and Change, and Studies in Second Language Acquisition. Currently he is conducting research on the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence by second language learners and, with Gregory Guy and others, investigating subject pronoun expression cross-linguistically.


1. What has been the best part of your academic journey?
I can name three things. First, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with many outstanding graduate students who are now making important contributions to the field. Even better, I’ve continued to work with a number of former students, most recently with Kristen Kennedy Terry, with whom I just co-authored a book: Social Network Analysis in Second Language Research: Theory and Methods. I’m also collaborating on a paper with former advisees in Spanish, Chelsea Escalante and Rebecca Pozzi. Second, the sociolinguistics community has been a welcoming source of strength, and I’ve made many life-long friends, including especially my long-time collaborator Ceil Lucas of Gallaudet University. Third, as a life-long advocate for peace and social justice, I’ve found that work in sociolinguistics provides a way to combine my academic interests with work that promotes human equality. My work with colleagues Ceil Lucas, Carolyn McCaskill, and Joseph Hill on Black ASL, the dialect of American Sign Language that developed in the segregated schools for the Deaf in the pre-Civil Rights era South, for example, has led to increasing recognition of the dialect and been embraced by the Black Deaf community. People can find out more about this work in our book, The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure (

2. The project you presented studies subject pronoun-expression and how it is conditioned by social factors. Could you share some insights of your research?
Our project is looking at three types of constraints on variation in subject pronoun expression in five different languages, Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swabian German, and a number of different dialect groups: 

  • cognitive/psychological constraints that we might expect to operate the same way in all languages. These include the need for reference tracking and priming;
  • language-specific constraints that we expect to differ from language to language. These include constraints and person/number and clause type;
  • social constraints that tend to be community specific. These include gender, age, and educational level (a proxy for social class).

Among the issues that we’ve had to confront is that we’re dealing with a variety of different data sets, collected by different researchers at different times, and coded in for a number of different constraints. Hence, we are limited to analyzing the independent variables that are coded in all of our data sets. That said, several trends have emerged with respect to social factors. First, in Swabian German, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish, women tend to use subject pronouns at higher rates than their male counterparts, although the difference is not always great enough to reach statistical significance. The exception is Persian, where in 2005 men used subject pronouns at higher rates than women. However, in the 2020 data from Tehran, there is only a minimal difference. Second, overall the influence of social constraints is not nearly as strong as the influence of cognitive/psychological or language-specific constraints. In this respect, subject pronoun expression differs from variables like /s/- aspiration and deletion in Spanish or negative concord in English, both of which are socially stigmatized. 

3. In your study, there are multiple researchers involved and multiple languages that are being studied. How would you describe the work dynamic of a study with these characteristics? Any highlights of this experience?
Our study is a collaboration among seven sociolinguists. The other colleagues on the project are Aria Adli (U. of Cologne), Karen Beaman (U. of Tubingen), Daniel Erker (Boston U.), Gregory Guy (NYU), Rafael Orozco (Louisiana State U.), and Xinye Zhang (UC Davis). Given the scope of the project (5 languages, 23 communities, more than a thousand speakers and more than a quarter of a million tokens), it is beyond the capacity of any individual. We each have our own areas of expertise. Aria Adli is a native speaker of Persian and has done extensive research on subject pronoun expression (SPE) in Tehran as well as in Barcelona. In addition to her extensive research on Swabian German, Karen Beaman was an executive in the US tech industry for many years and serves as project manager. Karen has also generated a lot of the graphics and performed some of the statistical analyses. Daniel Erker works on Spanish and collected an extensive corpus of Spanish in Boston. Danny is also an expert statistician and R wizard. In addition to his chapters, Danny is in charge of the “Quantitative Companion” that will be available online when the book is published. Greg Guy is our Portuguese expert, having worked on Brazilian Portuguese for more than four decades. Greg is also well-known for research in English and Spanish. Rafael Orozco and I have both worked on Spanish and Xinye Zhang and I have published on SPE in Chinese. 

Each person has taken the lead on one or two chapters for the volume that we’re preparing for Cambridge University Press. All our chapters, data, graphics, and tables are on Google docs, so we write on Google docs. When we need another team member’s expertise for a particular point, we include a request in the Google docs comments or send a message via Slack. We normally meet via Zoom every 2 weeks to address any issues, check on progress, plan conference presentations, and so forth. Thus far, the system is working well. We’ll soon have a full draft of the book manuscript, which all collaborators will then go through. 

To my knowledge, this is the largest study of a morpho-syntactic variable ever undertaken. We’re excited to find that a number of constraints, including priming and reference continuity, work the same way across all languages and are good candidates for linguistic universals. We’ve also found a potential solution to the role of frequency in morpho-syntactic variation. I think this project has the potential to change the way a lot of people approach research in language variation and change. For me, it’s a rare privilege to be involved in new groundbreaking research so late in my career.

4. What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in academia?
First, find an area of research that really excites you. Second, try to be flexible about where to live. Any good academic job will attract a large number of qualified applicants and it’s quite possible that you’ll have to spend some time in a place that you had never considered before moving to your “ideal” job. Many of my colleagues and more than a few of my students have moved more than once in their careers. Third, care about your students, and be willing do whatever you can to help them achieve their goals, which may not be similar to yours. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, find your community. As noted in my response to the first question, I’ve made many friends among colleagues around the country and internationally, and my life is much richer as a result.