How do children acquire sociolinguistic variation?
Language is inherently variable. When we think about speaker knowledge of a language, we must include competence in the patterns of variability within that language– their “communicative” or stylistic competence. We also know that variability is not only subject to stylistic constraints, but also to grammatical ones. To produce variable language, an individual grammar must interweave both the social and the linguistic. We assume that children picking up their first language must be capable of acquiring such complexity, but exactly how they do it is an area of inquiry with much still to be explored.
A current project with Youngah Do (Hong Kong University) looks at phonetic bias in acquisition of free (unconstrained) phonological variation in artificial languages, and finds that speakers have an implicit bias in acquisition that subtly shifts patterns of variation towards typological universals.
Out in the real world
My dissertation study takes place in an elementary school in a small industrial city just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. The school is characterized by robust socioeconomic, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, although the city itself is largely socioeconomically, ethnically, and linguistically segregated by neighborhood.
Though by the age of 5 children are on the tail-end of primary language acquisition, they enter their Kindergarten classrooms on the first day of school, in this city and in many places, and their grammars are suddenly introduced to a range of variants and variable patterns they may not have been previously exposed to, including phonetic, prosodic, phonological, morphophonological, and morphosyntactic variation.
They also may begin to categorize their peers into social groups and begin to see themselves as part of one group and outside of another. We know that, before adulthood, they will develop attitudes (see map below), evaluations, alignments, stances, and identities that hinge on the ability to index the social world to language variability.
My study asks when the link between variable linguistic and social input is established, and how children operationalize this knowledge as social actors. This research is supported by NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research grant #1729018