Sociolinguistic Variation and Acquisition in Two-Way Language Immersion

This autumn we are publishing Sociolinguistic Variation and Acquisition in Two-Way Language Immersion by Rebecca Lurie Starr. The book explores how children in a diverse language immersion school environment negotiate language variation and acquire sociolinguistic knowledge.

As language teachers and learners all know, learning a language is not just about mastering vocabulary and grammar. Native speakers of a language also understand how to phrase things appropriately in different situations, and have an awareness of how different types of people are likely to speak – what types of language use patterns sound educated, feminine, casual, and so on. These sorts of competencies, referred to as communicative competence and sociolinguistic knowledge, are normally acquired by native speakers through everyday interactions in a community of other native speakers. For learners studying a second language, particularly in a school environment in which their exposure to native speakers is limited, acquiring this sort of competence is a daunting task. This challenge may be even greater for young children studying a second language, as they are still developing an understanding of their social world in their native languages. How can a child whose only access to a language is via school come to understand the connections between language features and social meaning? Do children in this situation use their second language to reflect and construct their social identities?

Sociolinguistic Variation and Acquisition in Two-Way Language ImmersionMy book focuses on children’s development of sociolinguistic knowledge in two-way language immersion, an increasingly popular educational model in the US, in which children from different language backgrounds spend part of the school day learning content via each language, with the goal of becoming bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. One of the theorized benefits of two-way immersion relative to conventional language immersion is that students have the opportunity to receive native-speaker input from their classmates who speak the other language at home; this expands the potential range of situations in which children are exposed to a second language, perhaps helping them acquire greater communicative competence. The book presents a case study of first and second graders in a Mandarin-English two-way immersion program in the US, in which some children speak Mandarin Chinese at home, some speak English, and others speak a third language.

As Eliane Rubinstein-Avila has pointed out in her work on Portuguese-English two-way language immersion, the assumption of “two languages” in these two-way programs is problematic: often, this terminology obscures a significant range of dialectal variation within each language present in the program. This is particularly the case for two-way language immersion programs involving widely-spoken heritage languages such as Mandarin Chinese, in which immigrants from a variety of regions (Taiwan, Northern Mainland China, Malaysia, etc.) and their descendants come into contact. In these programs, it is not only students who may speak in a range of dialects, but teachers as well; in fact, some teachers may find themselves teaching students who are native speakers of a more prestigious dialect, or using teaching materials from a dialect with which they are unfamiliar. In this work, I investigate how teachers tackle this sociolinguistically perilous situation, as well as what students learn from how their teachers—and classmates—use and discuss language variation.

My research examines how teachers and students in this dialectally-diverse Mandarin-English program develop shared practices and navigate sociolinguistic variation within each language. I analyze three sources of sociolinguistic information in children’s school environment: teacher language use, classmate language use, and metalinguistic discourse (focusing on corrective feedback initiated by both teachers and students), bringing together quantitative variationist analysis and ethnographic observations.

I argue that, rather than mirroring the language use patterns of their teachers or classmates, children who are learning a second language in two-way language immersion can and do exploit sociolinguistic information in their environment to acquire a more standard language variety than those used by the native speakers around them. To put it more plainly, these children are avoiding acquiring the accents used by their teachers and classmates. Over the course of my analysis, I provide insight into how and why children might be doing this, and discuss how two-way language immersion programs function as communities of practice in which members develop conventions for how language is used, corrected, and negotiated.

For more information on Rebecca’s book, please see our website. You might also be interested in some of our other titles on immersion education: Immersion Education edited by Diane J. Tedick et al, The Sociolinguistic Competence of Immersion Students by Raymond Mougeon et al and Pathways to Multilingualism edited by Tara Williams Fortune and Diane J. Tedick.Immersion titles

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