Language patterns are roller-coaster ride during childhood development

February 24, 2011, North Carolina State University

Why, and when, do we learn to speak the way that we do? Research from North Carolina State University on African-American children presents an unexpected finding: language use can go on a roller-coaster ride during childhood as kids adopt and abandon vernacular language patterns.

"We found that there is a 'roller-coaster effect,' featuring an ebb and flow in a child's use of vernacular English over the course of his or her language development," says Dr. Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of English Linguistics at NC State and co-author of several recent papers describing the research. "This was totally unanticipated." Vernacular English is defined here as culturally specific speech patterns that are distinct from standard English; in this case, the vernacular is African-American English (AAE).

One implication of the finding involves education, since teachers often advocate teaching standard English early in a . "This approach does seem to work at first," Wolfram says, "but it doesn't last." In other words, if a school system wants its students to graduate high school with a strong foundation in standard English, it may have to revisit standard English later in the education curriculum.

Specifically, the researchers found that children come to school speaking English with a relatively high number of vernacular features. Then, through the first four grades of elementary school, those features are reduced, as children adopt more standard patterns. As the children move toward middle school, the level of vernacular rises – though many children often reduce their use of vernacular again as they enter high school.

"This finding reveals a cyclic pattern in the use of African-American vernacular English that no one expected to see during children's language development," says Janneke Van Hofwegen, a research associate at NC State and co-author of the study. "This wasn't even a hypothesis when we began the study."

The researchers note that, while their data looked solely at African-American children, the findings may be applicable more broadly to other groups.

The research stems from the longest, and largest, study ever to examine the longitudinal development of language in African-American children. The study began in 1990, following 88 African-American children from central North Carolina in order to track their language development. The study is ongoing, with 68 of the original participants still being tracked. The data is collected by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill, N. C.

The retention rate of the participants is remarkably high, particularly given that approximately 71 percent of the children were living below the poverty line in 1990. "It's incredible, and gives us a rare opportunity to study in ," Wolfram says.

The study also gives researchers an impressive array of data, providing them with access to school and test data, as well as the data collected through the study's own interviews and surveys.

Researchers are currently assessing how and whether dialect use is related to literacy skills, as well as the role that mothers play in their children's use of vernacular.

One of the papers, "Trajectories of Development in AAE: The First 17 Years," is forthcoming from the Proceedings of the Conference on African American Language In Popular Culture. The paper was co-authored by Wolfram; Van Hofwegen; Mary E. Kohn, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Dr. Jennifer Renn, who worked on the paper while a Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Explore further: Preschoolers' language development is partly tied to their classmates' language skills

More information: Another paper, "Coming of age in African American English: A longitudinal study," was co-authored by Wolfram and Van Hofwegen and was published in September 2010 in the Journal of Sociolinguistics.

Related Stories

Instant messaging -- a new language?

May 1, 2008

For many adults over the age of 30, the former groupings of letters would seem incoherent, but for a newer generation of technologically-savvy young adults it can say a lot.

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Humans will actually react pretty well to news of alien life

February 16, 2018

As humans reach out technologically to see if there are other life forms in the universe, one important question needs to be answered: When we make contact, how are we going to handle it? Will we feel threatened and react ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 24, 2011
I can't help thinking this all seems a bit asinine. Surely one of the most important questions to ask is: at different ages, what is the focus of children's development? What are they interested in and who are they learning from the most? As children grow and their identity incorporates elements [memes] from an ever wider environmental sphere [ie physical and cultural space around them] it is quite reasonable that the centre of gravity of their personal language will shift. So what! As long as they come to recognise the different language styles - which are, after all, just different dialects of English - and the respective situations within which each is appropriate, that should be enough.

The article seems to embody a somewhat uncritical acceptance of middle class academic bureaucracy as "normal". However nobody anywhere on the planet has yet produced clear and unambiguous evidence to prove that bureaucratic educations systems are the best thing for children.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.