Les parents utilisent les babyphones, mais les bébés nous ecoutent aussi

Cette semaine je me suis entretenu avec la Docteure Ailis Cournane de l’Université de Toronto. Nous avons discuté de l’acquisition d’une langue primaire (ALP), en particulier de la manière dont les bébés et les enfants en bas âge acquièrent leur(s) langue(s) maternelle(s), et de leur façon de s’y prendre. Vous êtes-vous déjà demandé si votre enfant comprend votre « langage de bébé » ? Si vous pouviez élever un enfant parfaitement trilingue ? Ou s’il importe que votre enfant n’arrive pas à se souvenir qu’on ne dit pas « chevals » ou « journals » (‘gooses’ et ‘mices’ dans le texte original) ? Comprendre grâce à l’ALP comment nos enfants font pour acquérir une langue est la première étape vers l’obtention d’une réponse à certaines de ces questions. Même si vous n’avez pas d’enfant, vous en étiez un autrefois ; alors voyons ce que l’enfant qui se trouve en chacun d’entre nous pense de la façon que nous avons tous d’apprendre notre première langue. Tout comme pour de nombreux autres aspects de l’éducation des enfants, quand on a son propre enfant, on a tendance à avoir le sentiment d’être des experts en développement de l’enfant. Mais en ce qui concerne l’acquisition d’une langue première, on peut se tourner vers des spécialistes comme la Professeure Cournane pour nous aider à comprendre cette science qui se cache derrière ce processus et comprendre quels genres de vérités universelles il existe vraiment. Même si vous n’avez pas d’enfants, vous en étiez un autrefois. Allons voir tout de suite ce que l’enfant en chacun de nous pense de notre façon d’apprendre notre langue maternelle.

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[Moi quand j’avais eu 2 ou 3 ans. Le spaghetti m’a rendu heureux…certaines choses ne changent jamais]

Michael Iannozzi : Qu’est-ce qui vous a d’abord intéressé dans l’étude de l’acquisition d’une langue primaire ?

Ailis Cournane : À l’origine je travaillais sur les changements linguistiques et je voyais là constamment des références au rôle que joue l’enfant-apprenant dans ce processus de changement linguistique [Le changement linguistique est la manière dont les langues évoluent au cours du temps, ce qui signifie en général, sur plusieurs générations]. On pense que les enfants ré-analysent la langue lorsqu’ils l’apprennent et qu’ils construisent leur propre grammaire mentale [interne et subconsciente]. Cependant, en dépit du fait qu’on observe cette théorie partout et du fait qu’elle soit largement acceptée, personne ne l’avait suffisamment explorée en rapport avec les changements linguistiques. Je me suis donc intéressée à la langue des enfants parce que je m’intéresse d’abord au changement. Le développement et le changement ont beaucoup en commun.

MI : Comment définit-on l’acquisition d’une langue primaire ?

AC : L’acquisition d’une langue primaire (ALP) décrit le processus et les propriétés de la langue des bébés, des tout-petits et des enfants en bas-âge au fur et à mesure qu’ils acquièrent leur(s) langue(s) maternelle(s). L’enfant commence sans aucun langage (mais avec une capacité pour le langage !) et, grâce à une contribution sociale de la part de locuteurs qui l’entourent, il construit graduellement sa ou ses langue(s). Je dis ‘langue(s)’ parce que beaucoup d’enfants sont exposés à plusieurs langues si bien qu’ils les acquièrent simultanément.

MI : Comment l’apprentissage d’une langue primaire est-il différent de l’apprentissage d’une langue seconde ?

AC : Il y a quelques différences importantes. Tout d’abord, avec l’ALP, il n’y a pas d’autre langue déjà en place. Si vous êtes un enfant apprenant l’anglais, vous construisez votre première langue en utilisant seulement votre capacité linguistique et votre exposition à des locuteurs plus âgés. En ce qui concerne l’acquisition langue seconde [ALS], vous avez déjà une langue en place ! Quand vous apprenez l’anglais en tant qu’adolescent, par exemple, vous l’apprenez donc en relation avec votre langue maternelle (disons le mandarin). L’anglais que vous apprenez en tant que L2 entre en compétition de plusieurs manières avec le mandarin que vous avez appris en premier [Une L2 est la deuxième langue d’une personne, celle qu’on a apprise en deuxième.] Deuxièmement, il apparait que l’ALS requière plus de motivation et un enseignement plus explicite que l’ALP : cours, exercices, se forcer à parler avec des locuteurs natifs, etc. L’ALS semble aussi montrer des étapes importantes moins bien définies que l’ALP.

MI : Qui sont ces sources principales de contribution pour l’acquisition de la première langue, L1, d’un enfant ?

AC : Les sources principales de contribution pendant la petite enfance sont les personnes principales qui s’occupent des enfants [parents, enseignants, personnel de crèche, de jardin d’enfants, nounous…]. Très tôt, lorsque la plupart des enfants dépendent largement de leur mère, la contribution maternelle est généralement la plus forte. Les frères et sœurs plus âgés jouent aussi un rôle tôt dans le développement. Une fois que l’enfant va à une crèche ou une école maternelle, les enfants du même âge commencent à jouer un rôle plus important.

MI : De qui un enfant prend-il son accent?

AC : Eh bien, un enfant, en particulier un enfant plus âgé ou un enfant unique, modèle d’abord sa langue sur celle de ces principales personnes qui s’occupent de lui ; c’est d’eux qu’ils reçoivent la plupart de la contribution linguistique. Cependant, les enfants s’adaptent très vite à leurs congénères dès qu’ils entrent à la crèche ou à l’école maternelle. C’est pourquoi les gens dont les parents sont des immigrés ne partagent pas l’accent de leurs parents mais plutôt celui de leurs pairs. Par exemple, mes parents viennent d’Irlande mais mes frères et moi avons grandi à Montréal. Nous avons un accent anglais canadien avec les traits attendus des anglophones de Montréal. Nous avons occasionnellement une certaine influence irlandaise mais notre façon de parler est bien, bien plus proche de celle de nos pairs que de celle de nos parents.

MI : Est-ce que les composantes de la langue des enfants (accent, grammaire, prononciation, etc.) sont apprises séparément, à partir de différentes sources ou sont-elles apprises simultanément ?

AC : Simultanément. Cependant l’intérêt ou le point principal de concentration des changements développementaux peuvent se produire dans différents domaines à différents moments. Par exemple, puisque les mots sont faits de différents sons, l’enfant a besoin de commencer à décrypter le système sonore d’une langue avant de pouvoir vraiment saisir des mots (sans parler des mots complexes ou des phrases). Ceci dit, les sons sont contenus dans des mots si bien que l’enfant apprend aussi nécessairement les mots lorsqu’il se concentre sur le développement des sons. Il y a là en jeu des interactions très complexes.

MI : Alors que les enfants apprennent leur première langue, ils font tous des erreurs: qu’est-ce que ces erreurs nous disent sur la manière d’apprendre à parler ?

AC : J’aime bien appeler les erreurs ou les fautes des analyses « divergentes » ou « créatives » parce que ces analyses sont productives et systématiques et elles émergent d’aspects qui indiquent comment l’enfant apprend [cela signifie que les erreurs qu’un enfant produit comme de dire « chevals » pour « chevaux » et « journals » pour « journaux » sont logiques même si elles ne sont pas correctes. En d’autres termes, les erreurs sont calquées sur un modèle et peuvent s’expliquer.]

Elles n’ont l’air d’erreurs que quand on les compare aux normes de grammaire adultes mais, elles ne sont en réalité pas vraiment des erreurs ; elles montrent, par exemple, le dévoilement par l’enfant des règles linguistiques et l’application de ces règles (parfois des exceptions). Par exemple, les enfants sur-appliquent souvent le passé des verbes réguliers aux verbes irréguliers : ‘prendu’ pour ‘pris’ ou ‘couri’ pour ‘couru’ (les exemples originaux en anglais sont ‘goed’ pour ‘went’ et ‘eated’ pour ‘ate’). Cela montre que l’enfant comprend comment former de manière productive le temps passé. C’est une grande prouesse et ça montre la prise de conscience de modèles et la capacité à généraliser une règle.

MI : Les erreurs qu’un enfant produit en parlant sont-elles malgré tout un genre d’erreur? Est-ce qu’on peut dire qu’une prononciation incorrecte est le même genre d’erreur que de dire ‘prendu’ ou ‘couri’ ?

AC : Pas nécessairement. Une prononciation incorrecte, par exemple, peut avoir une cause physiologique (contrôle musculaire, état de l’appareil vocal en développement, coordination, etc.), cognitive (compréhension du système des sons de la langue, organisation), ou même les deux.

L’omission de mots grammaticaux (par exemple dire ‘envie partir’ (‘wan go’ dans le texte original) laissant de côté le pronom et le verbe ‘j’ai’ et le marqueur infinitif ‘de’ (‘I’ et ‘to’ en anglais), et ce que ces erreurs signifient, sont des sujets de débat bien connus. La question est de savoir si l’enfant les omet parce qu’ils ne sont pas saillants dans le signal sonore de la langue [l’enfant n’entend-il pas les autres composantes ?] ou, parce qu’ils sont grammaticalement plus complexes et abstraits ? Ou est-ce même une combinaison des deux ? [La signification de « envie manger » (‘want eat’ dans le texte original) prononcé par un enfant à l’heure du diner est plutôt claire même si c’est grammaticalement incorrect.]

MI : Existe-t-il un ‘ordre’ dans la manière d’apprendre une langue ? Les enfants apprennent-ils certaines choses en premier et d’autres en dernier ?

AC : Oui ! Cet ordre est en parti déterminé par la logique : les phrases sont faites de mots et les mots sont faits de sons si bien qu’on ne peut pas sauter tout de suite vers l’apprentissage de phrases si on n’a pas d’abord compris deux ou trois choses du système sonore de la langue. En simplifiant quelque peu, la première tâche de l’enfant consiste ainsi à percer le système sonore des paroles qu’il entend autour de lui (ou le système gestuel de la langue des signes). Une partie de l’apprentissage des modèles sonores dans une langue consiste à apprendre où se trouvent les limites des mots dans le flux de paroles. Nos paroles sont des flux acoustiques continus, sans frontières, mais notre grammaire mentale sait où placer ces frontières [c’est pourquoi quand on entend une langue qui ne nous est pas familière, on pense souvent que les locuteurs parlent vite. Ce sentiment est dû au fait qu’on n’entend pas où les mots se terminent.]

Nous avons appris à faire cela quand on était enfants en résolvant ce qu’on appelle « le problème de segmentation ». Ce problème réfère à la façon dont un enfant apprend où un mot se termine dans le flux continu et où le mot suivant commence. La recherche actuelle affirme pour la plupart que les enfants comptent très fortement voire seulement sur le contrôle des possibilités transitionnelles entre les sons. Les combinaisons de sons qu’on retrouve fréquemment dans le flux de paroles sont considérées comme étant des mots. C’est seulement en ayant une compréhension de la phonologie de la langue, c’est-à-dire une compréhension de quels sons se combinent ensemble et comment, que les enfants peuvent progresser pour associer des sens à des mots et pour apprendre comment les mots peuvent se combiner en des mots plus complexes, et en phrases.

MI : Cet ordre est-il le même pour toutes les langues? Quelles sont les différences pour les enfants qui apprennent des langues maternelles différentes ?

AC : Oui, autant que nous sachions, l’ordre est remarquablement similaire à travers des langues diverses. L’enfant, contrairement à quelqu’un qui essaierait d’apprendre une seconde langue, n’a aucun savoir préalable d’aucune langue. Le développement est ainsi lourdement déterminé par des problèmes d’apprentissage qui peuvent le restreindre. L’enfant doit deviner le système sonore, les formes et les modèles des mots, leur signification, les règles grammaticales (syntaxiques), etc. La tâche est dans l’ensemble la même en dépit de la variation de la langue acquise. La langue des signes américaine, bien qu’elle s’exprime dans un mode différent (mode gestuel, visuel, plutôt que oral, auditif) est connue pour être très similaire en termes de développement aux langues parlées lorsque nous considérons les étapes importantes : les babillages, les premiers mots, les premières combinaisons de mots (les premières phrases), la surgénéralisation des règles, etc. Ceci dit, la plupart des langues n’ont pas été suffisamment étudiées dans leur développement et l’emphase a été principalement mise sur les langues européennes occidentales et sur d’autres langues proéminentes, largement répandues, comme le japonais ou le mandarin.

MI : Comment les adultes, les parents ou les personnes qui s’occupent des enfants changent leur façon de parler quand ils s’adressent aux enfants ?

AC : Les personnes qui s’occupent des enfants utilisent souvent ce qu’on appelle « la communication dirigée vers les enfants ». On l’appelle aussi « langage enfant » [langue spéciale d’interaction avec les enfants]  ou « mamanais » [« motherese » en anglais]. Cette forme de langue a des caractéristiques phonétiques distinctes : le ton est plus aigu que d’habitude, les modèles des accents toniques sont exagérés, et les voyelles sont plus longues. Ces traits phonétiques sont perçus comme ayant un « affect heureux ». Les enfants et les tout-petits répondent de préférence aux affects heureux.

Il y a aussi des preuves indiquant que les adultes utilisent un vocabulaire simplifié pour représenter des catégories basiques de mots, par exemple : une mère peut appeler un tigre « un gros chat » lorsqu’elle parle à son enfant. De plus, il existe aussi des preuves selon lesquelles les adultes simplifient leurs phrases qui contiennent des mots que l’enfant est prêt à apprendre [pour les mettre en évidence]. Par exemple, un père peut très bien dire « Tu veux de l’eau ? » à son bébé de 12 mois plutôt que « Est-ce que tu veux un verre d’eau ?». On pense que les adultes complexifient inconsciemment les discours adressés aux enfants au fur et à mesure que celui-ci grandit linguistiquement.

MI : Est-ce que ce changement est utile pour les enfants?

AC : Ça semble être utile mais pas nécessaire. Il existe des différences interculturelles dans la manière qu’ont les adultes et en particulier les personnes qui s’occupent d’enfants, d’interagir avec les enfants. Nous savons que les enfants et les enfants en bas âge réagissent au langage enfantin ; ça peut peut-être les aider que d’exagérer les limites entre les mots et les autres caractéristiques qui caractérisent le flux discursif ; ça peut ainsi les aider à apprendre des mots, mais aider ne signifie pas être nécessaire. La plupart de notre recherche a été menée sur des enfants apprenant une langue dans des sociétés occidentales à l’époque récente si bien qu’il est juste de dire que jusqu’à présent, nous en savons plus sur cette situation d’apprentissage que sur toutes les autres situations d’apprentissage encore existantes.

MI : Est-ce que les enfants apprennent leur langue maternelle différemment?

AC : Oui. Il y a des variations parmi les enfants mais on doit voir cela comme secondaire par rapport à des tendances et des similarités très fortes. Ainsi, il y a plus de similarités dans la façon d’apprendre une première langue qu’il n’y a de différences. En gardant cela en tête, on peut parler de ce qui varie.

Tout d’abord, les enfants peuvent souffrir d’un désordre qui affecte leur développement langagier (par exemple le syndrome de Down, l’autisme, le syndrome de Williams) ou bien ils peuvent avoir une déficience auditive qui les empêche d’accéder correctement à la langue parlée (mais étrangement pas à la langue des signes s’ils y sont exposés). Alors, même parmi les enfants qu’on peut considérer comme ayant un développement normal, au regard du langage, la chronologie du développement varie. Certains enfants atteignent les étapes majeures bien plus tôt que d’autres, mais tout ça dans des tranches d’âge normales. Par exemple certains enfants vont prononcer leurs premiers mots avant l’âge de 10 mois tandis que d’autres ne pourront pas les prononcer avant leurs 2 ans. C’est comparable à l’éventail d’âge où les enfants commencent à marcher, allant de l’âge de 9 mois pour certains à l’âge de 18 mois pour d’autres. Le retard linguistique n’est diagnostiqué que chez les enfants de plus de 4 ans parce qu’avant cet âge, les enfants peuvent varier énormément dans leur développement sans que cela ne soit alarmant.

La personnalité de l’enfant affecte aussi son développement. Certains enfants sont calmes et prudents alors que d’autres seront plutôt loquaces. La nature de l’interaction linguistique avec les personnes qui s’occupent d’eux importe aussi. Certaines études ont montré que le statut socioéconomique est un facteur significatif pour le développement lexical et syntaxique. Des chercheurs ont suivi des familles américaines et ont analysé leurs paroles. Les personnes de statut socioéconomique plus bas ont moins de chance de poser à leurs enfants en bas âge des questions ouvertes du type : « Qu’est-ce que tu dessines ? » mais plus de chances de s’adresser à eux avec des questions totales [dont la réponse est ‘oui’ ou ‘non’] comme « Est-ce que tu dessines ? ». De plus, elles ont aussi plus de chances d’utiliser des mots d’interdiction, comme « ne fais pas ci ! » en comparaison à des adultes de statut plus élevé. Les enfants de statut élevé ont en moyenne un vocabulaire plus large et atteignent les jalons du développement syntaxique un peu plus tôt.

MI : Comment un enfant affecte-t-il la langue de ses parents?

AC : Ma recherche répond directement à cette question mais c’est un domaine qui a déjà reçu par le passé beaucoup d’attention théorique mais peu de recherche a été faite à partir de données réelles. En d’autres termes, beaucoup de chercheurs pensent que les enfants jouent un rôle dans le changement linguistique mais quant à savoir si c’est vrai ou pas, la réponse n’est pas encore claire du point de vue concret de la recherche. Nous savons que les adolescents sont des « adoptants précoces » ; ils sont plus à même d’adopter et de répandre les changements linguistiques. Pensez, par exemple, à l’utilisation de la formule de citation en anglais « be like » (faire genre) : « He was like, ‘thank you’ » (il m’a fait genre ‘merci’). Cependant est-ce que ces nouvelles variantes dans la langue émergent à partir d’innovations effectuées dans la langue enfantine ?

J’examine cette question pour les expressions modales (les mots qui expriment la possibilité en anglais : must, can, might, maybe, probably, etc.) Il apparait effectivement que les enfants font des analyses compatibles avec l’évolution de la langue au cours du temps. Cependant, ‘compatible’ ne signifie pas nécessairement ‘causal’, alors restez à l’écoute !

MI : Est-ce que votre recherche affecte votre façon de parler aux enfants maintenant?

AC : Je ne pense pas, à part peut-être que, plus je travaille avec des enfants, plus je suis à l’aise avec tout plein d’enfants différents ! Ceci dit, travailler sur le langage des enfants affecte sans aucun doute ma façon de les ’écouter’ ! J’adore leur parler pas seulement à cause du contenu de ce qu’ils disent, mais à cause de la forme linguistique de ce qu’ils disent.

MI : Qu’est-ce que vous préférez dans votre travail d’étude ?

AC : La créativité linguistique ! Les enfants utilisent leur langue qui est en plein développement pour vivre leur jeune vie et ils produisent beaucoup de phrases créatives lorsqu’ils essaient de s’exprimer. Le problème en soi est fascinant et complexe : comment un enfant sans langue part-il de cette étape pré-linguistique pour devenir un adulte pleinement linguistique ? La langue est complexe et systématique, et il est tellement facile de la prendre pour acquise. Mais quand on doit réfléchir explicitement à ce qu’un petit apprenant fait, on est régulièrement frappé : c’est merveilleux de voir que les humains peuvent même apprendre une langue.

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[Ma maman et sa jumelle étaient en train de discuter l’économie.]

Un grand merci à Ailis Cournane de nous avoir ramenés dans notre enfance et de nous avoir appris comment on a un jour appris à parler. L’un des grands avantages des études linguistiques, ou des langues plus généralement, c’est que vous êtes constamment stupéfaits par les complexités du langage et par notre capacité à manier inconsciemment et sans effort cette complexité.

Le fait que la version bébé de ma personne a été capable d’apprendre le mot « tracteur » parmi ses premiers mots, est plutôt remarquable. Petit Michael a été capable de trouver où commence et où se finit le mot (avec un « t » et un « r »), d’identifier les sons au milieu, et d’associer cette suite de sons à cette machine énorme que mon grand-père conduisait avec moi dans son champ, et puis de produire ces sons sans qu’on me le demande, lorsque je l’ai vu la semaine suivante. Pas si mal quand on considère que, après 10 ans, je bataille toujours pour utiliser correctement la négation en français.

A tantôt,

 

Michael Iannozzi

Merci bien Floriane pour ton aide avec la traduction.

 

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A new year, thank you for the old one

Happy New Year to you all!

 

Just a brief post from me today. I just wanted to thank you all for supporting the museum over 2015. I joined the Canadian Language Museum in the late summer of 2014 as a volunteer. I have since then run the blog, twitter and Facebook accounts.

 

It has been, and continues to be, an enormous honour, and a terrific amount of fun. I am able to speak to fantastic professors, graduate students, and community members who do essential and amazing work. I am able to share the things that I love about language(s) with all of you, and I want to say that I am extraordinarily grateful and thankful to each of you for your support. So I want to thank you for being patient with me, and for supporting the blog, twitter, and Facebook, but also for supporting the Museum more broadly.

 

In particular I want to thank all of the wonderful people I’ve spoken with over the past year for the blog. You have all been incredibly patient and endlessly kind and helpful in sharing your work with me, and with the readers of our blog. I apologize for any delays in my replies in email, and I will do my best to keep up with all of the people I hope to speak with, and continue to work hard in 2016 to keep bringing new interviews, and new research to the blog.

 

I also want to sincerely thank Elaine Gold and Katharine Snider-McNair; the Museum’s chair and executive assistant. This may sound self-congratulatory, but I don’t actually see either one of them very often, and I don’t speak with them as often as I likely should. They/you have both been continually supportive and kind, so thank you for allowing me to keep doing this. I love every part of this.

 

I also want to thank Floriane Letourneux. She has been a fantastic, and fantastically understanding and patient, translator for our blog posts. Any faults with the French translation are always my own (especially today as she hasn’t seen this), but the amazing quality of the translations are entirely due to her. Thank you.

 

Finally, thank you from the core of my heart to my friends and family for always supporting me, and serving as test subjects for my ideas and initial drafts of blog posts. I try to write everything so that non-linguists can appreciate the amazing work the people I talk with and about are doing, and my friends and family are never anything less than entirely patient and kind with helping me.

 

In 2016, I’d really like to begin brief weekly profiles of graduate students, something I tried to start in September, but the start of the year was just too busy a time for many students and Universities. So, if you are a graduate student in Canada, or a Canadian graduate student elsewhere, or someone working on something Canadian-y and language-y, please get in touch at CanLangMuseum@gmail.com. I will be sending out an email to linguistic departments all over, but the document is attached below, and I would love to hear from you.

CLM – Graduate student profiles – Questions – The Document!

In general please feel free to contact me at any point with any advice, ideas, or otherwise. I am always happy to speak with anyone about the museum, and I don’t pretend to be an expert at any form of social media, so please get in touch if you have something you’d like to share—news, events, ideas etc.

 

Take care everyone, thank you, and have a good year eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

 

Talking Baby Talk

This week I’m talking with Dr. Ailís Cournane of The University of Toronto. We are discussing first language acquisition, or FLA. We spoke about the way babies and infants acquire their mother tongue(s), the first language(s) they learn, and how they go about doing that.

Have you ever wondered if your infant understands your baby-talk? Whether you could raise a perfectly trilingual child? Or if it matters that your kid can’t remember that we don’t say “gooses” or “meeses”?”. Understanding how our children acquire language through FLA is the first step in answering some of these questions. Even if you don’t have a child, you were one once, so let’s find out what the kid in us thinks about how we all learned our first language

Like so many aspects of child rearing, having one’s own child tends to make people feel like experts on how babies develop. When it comes to first language acquisition, we can turn to researchers like Doctor Cournane to help understand out the science behind how our babies develop, and what kind of universal truths actually exist. Even if you don’t have a child, you were one once, so let’s find out what the kid in us thinks about how we all learned our first language.

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[Child version of me being encouraged to speak by being given macaroni…still works 24 years later]

Michael Iannozzi : What first got you interested in studying first-language acquisition?

Ailís Cournane : I originally worked on language change, and I continually saw reference to the role of the child learner in driving language change [Language change is the way language evolves over time, which usually means over generations]. Children are thought to reanalyse the language when they learn and build their own [internal and subconscious] mental grammar. However, despite seeing that theory everywhere, and it being widely accepted, no one had explored it sufficiently in how languages change. So I got into child language because I’m interested in change. Development and change have much in common.

MI : How is first-language acquisition defined?

AC : FLA [First-Language Acquisition] describes the process and properties of the language of infants/toddlers/young children as they acquire their mother tongue(s). The child begins with no language (but with the capacity for language!), and with social input from speakers around her, she gradually builds her language(s). I say “language(s)” because many infants are exposed to more than one language, so they acquire these simultaneously.

MI : How is the learning of a first language different from the learning of second language?

AC : There are a few important differences. Firstly, with FLA there is no other language in place. If you are a child acquiring English you are building your first language using just your language capacity and exposure to older speakers. For Second Language Acquisition [SLA] you already have a language in place! So when you learn English as a teenager, for example, you learn it in relation to your mother tongue (say, Mandarin). The English you learn as an L2 competes in some ways with the Mandarin you learned first [An L2 is someone’s 2nd language. The one they acquired second]. Secondly, SLA appears to require more motivation and explicit learning (classes, drills, forcing yourself to practice with native speakers, etc.) than FLA. SLA also seems to show less defined milestones (or stages) than FLA.

MI : Who are the main sources of input for an infant’s first language [L1] acquisition?

AC : The primary caregivers are the main source of input during infancy and early childhood. Very early on, when most infants are relying heavily on their mother, the maternal input is usually strongest. Older siblings also play a role early on in development. Once the child attends daycare or preschool the peer-group begins to play a larger role.

MI : From whom does a child learn their accent?

AC : Well, at first a child – especially an oldest or only child – models their language on their primary caregivers’ language, from who they are hearing most of their language input. However, children very quickly adapt to their peer-group as soon as they enter daycare or elementary school. This is why people with immigrant parents do not share their parents’ accent, but instead sound like their peers. For example, my parents are from Ireland, but my brothers and I grew up in Montreal. We have Canadian English accents with the features expected of Montreal Anglophones. We occasionally have some Irish influence in our language, but we sound much, much, more like our peers than our parents.

MI : Are the parts of a child’s language (accent, grammar, pronunciation, etc.) learned separately/from different sources, or is it all learned concurrently?

AC : Concurrently, however, the focus or main concentration of developmental changes may be in different areas at different times. For example, since words are made up of several sounds the infant needs to begin to crack the sound system of a language before they can really grasp words (let alone complex words or sentences). That said, sounds are contained in words so the child is also necessarily learning about words when they are focusing on sound development. There are very complex interactions at work.

MI : As children learn their first language, they all make some mistakes, what do they tell us about how the children are learning to speak?

AC : I like to call mistakes or errors “divergent” or “creative” analyses, because these analyses are productive and systematic and emerge from aspects of how the child is learning [Meaning the mistakes a child makes like calling geese, “gooses”, or moose “meese”, make sense even though they aren’t correct. In other words, the mistakes are patterned, and can be explained].

They only seem like mistakes when we compare them to adult grammar norms, but they aren’t actually mistakes, they’re (for example) the child uncovering rules of the language and applying those rules (sometimes to exceptions). For example, children sometimesover-apply the regular past tense (-ed) to irregular past tense (e.g., goed for went, or eated for ate). This shows that the child understands how to productively form a past tense in English – that’s a big achievement, and shows pattern recognitions and the ability to generalize a rule.

MI : Are the mistakes a child makes in speaking all the same “kind” of mistake? Is a mispronunciation the same “kind of mistake” as eated or goed?

AC : Not necessarily. Mispronunciation, for example, can have either or both physiological (muscle-control, shape of the developing vocal tract, coordination, etc.) and cognitive (understanding of the sound system of the language, planning, etc.) causes.

Omissions of grammatical words (e.g., saying wan go, leaving out the pronoun “I” and the “to” infinitive marker, I wanna go), and what these mistakes mean, are notoriously debated. Does the child omit them because they’re not salient in the sound signal of the language [Is the child not hearing the other parts?]? Or because they are more grammatically complex and abstract? Or because they can be omitted pragmatically (i.e. they’re not necessary to be understood when speech happens in context, as most daily speech does, especially for a child)? Or some combination of these? [It is pretty clear what “want eat” means coming from an infant at supper, even if grammatically it isn’t “correct”]

MI : Is there an “order” to the way children learn a language? Do they learn certain parts first and last?

AC : Yes. Some of this order is logically determined – sentences are made up of words and words are made up of sounds, so you can’t jump right to learning sentences if you haven’t figured out something about the sound system of the language you are learning. Thus, simplifying somewhat, the infant’s first task is to break into the sound system of the speech around them (or the gestural system of the sign language around them). Part of learning the sound patterns in a language is learning where word boundaries are in the stream of speech. Our speech is a continuous acoustic stream with no boundaries, but our mental grammar knows where to put boundaries [This is often why, when we hear a language we aren’t familiar with, we think they are speaking quickly. Because we can’t hear where words end].

We learned to do this as infants by solving what is called the “segmentation problem”. This problem refers to how the child learns where in the continuous stream one word ends and the next begins. Current research mostly argues that children rely heavily, or solely, on monitoring transitional probabilities between sounds. Sounds that frequently pattern together in the speech stream are thought to pattern together as words. Only by having some understanding of the phonology of the language, e.g. which sounds pattern together and how, can the child progress to associating meanings to words and learning how words can be combined together into complex words and sentences.

MI : Is that order the same across languages? What are the differences in children who learn different first languages?

AC : Yes, as far as we know the order is remarkably similar across diverse languages. The infant, unlike someone trying to learn a second language, has no knowledge of any previous language, so much of what constrains development is determined by how the child learns, and if the child has any learning or language impairments. The child must figure out the sound system, word forms and word-patterns, word meanings, grammatical rules (syntax), etc. The task is broadly the same one, despite the language that is being acquired varying. American Sign Language, despite being in a different mode (gestural-visual, rather than oral-aural), is known to be very similar in development to spoken languages when we consider milestones – babbling, first words, first word combinations (early sentences), overgeneralization of rules, etc. That said, most languages have not been sufficiently studied in development, the focus has been primarily on Western European languages and other prominent/widely-spoke languages (e.g., Japanese, Mandarin).

MI : How do adults/parents/caregivers change their speech when talking with children/infants?

AC : Caregivers often use what is called “Child Directed Speech”, or CDS. This is also called Infant-Directed Speech or Motherese. CDS has distinct phonetic features – it is higher pitch than the speaker’s regular voice, stress patterns are exaggerated, and vowels are held for a longer duration. These phonetic features are perceived as having a “happy affect”. Infants and young children respond preferentially to happy affect.

There is also some evidence that adults simplify their word choices to represent basic-level categories, for example, a mother might call a tiger a “kitty” when talking to her young child. Further, there is also some evidence that adults might simplify the sentences containing words the child is poised to learn. For example, a father might say “You want water?” to his 1-year old rather than, “Do you want a glass of water?”. Adults are thought to subconsciously complexify their child-directed language as the child grows linguistically.

MI : Is this change helpful for the learning children?

AC : It seems to be helpful, but not necessary. There are cross-cultural differences in the ways adults, and particularly caregivers, interact with children. We know that CDS is something that infants and young children respond to, and it may help exaggerate word boundaries and other features of the speech stream and thus help with learning words, but helping is different from being necessary. Most of our research has been conducted on children learning a language in western societies in recent times, so it is fair to say that it this point we know more about this learning situation than all other extant learning situations.

MI : Do different children learn their first language differently?

AC : Yes. There is variation across children, but this needs to be viewed as secondary to very robust trends and similarities. Thus, there is more that is the same about how children learn their first language than there is that differs. With that in mind, let’s talk about what varies.

First, children may have a disorder that affects language development (e.g., Down Syndrome, Autism, Williams Syndrome), or they may have a hearing impairment that impairs their access to spoken language (but not to sign language if they are exposed to a sign language). Then, even among children who are considered typically-developing with respect to language, the time course of development varies. Some children reach milestones much earlier than others, all within the normal range. For example, some children will use their first words by 10 months of age, while others may not use their first words until 24 months old. This is comparable to how some children start walking at 9 months while others start walking at 18 months. Language delay is only diagnosed in children over age 4 because children can vary widely in early development without any cause for alarm.

The child’s personality also affects development. Some children will be quiet and cautious, while others will be quite loquacious. The nature of linguistic interaction with caregivers matters as well. Some studies have shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is a significant factor in vocabulary and syntactic development. Families in the US were followed and their speech analysed; caregivers of lower socioeconomic status were less likely to ask their young children open ended questions (e.g. “What are you drawing?”) and more likely to address young children with yes/no questions (e.g., “Are you drawing?”), and more likely to use prohibitive language (e.g., “Don’t…”) compared to higher SES caregivers. Children from higher SES families on average had larger vocabularies, and reached syntactic development milestones somewhat earlier.

MI : How does a child change the language of their parents?

AC : My research directly addresses this, but it is an area that has previously received a lot of theoretical attention, but very little data-driven research. In other words, many researchers think children play a role in how languages change, but it’s unclear from real-world research whether that is true or not. We know that teenagers are “early adopters”, and most likely to embrace and spread language changes (think about, for example, use of quotative “be like” as in “He was like, ‘thank you’”), however do these new variants in the language emerge from child-language innovations?

I look at this question for modal expressions (words that express possibility: must, can, might, maybe, probably, etc). Children do appear to make analyses that are compatible with how languages change over time. However, compatible is not necessarily causal, so stay tuned!

MI : Does your research affect the way you now speak with children?

AC : I don’t think so, except perhaps that I’m more and more comfortable with lots of different children the more I work with kids. That said, working on child language definitely affects how I listen to children! I love talking to children not just for the content of what they say, but for the linguistic form of what they say.

MI : What is your favourite part of studying the way children learn languages?

AC : The linguistic creativity! They are using their developing language to live their wee lives, and they make many creative sentences when they try to express themselves. The problem itself is fascinating and complex – how does a language-less infant go from that pre-linguistic stage to becoming a fully-linguistic adult? Language is complex and systematic, and it is so easy to take it for granted. When you have to explicitly think about what the little language learner is doing you are regularly struck by how marvellous it is that humans can learn language at all.

twinsoonies

[My mum and her twin sister sharing sandbox gossip]

A great thank you to Ailís Cournane for taking us back in time, and teaching us how we once learned language.

One of the great advantages of studying linguistics, or language more broadly, is that you are constantly amazed at the complexities of language, and how subconsciously and effortlessly you are able to handle that complexity.

The fact that the little child version of me was able to learn “Tractor” as one of my first words, is quite remarkable. Infant Michael was able to find out where the word began and ended (with a “t” sound and an “r” sound), pick out the sounds in between, and attach that collection of sounds to a massive machine my grampa drove through the field with me, and then produce those sounds without being asked when I saw it the next week. Not bad work considering I still struggle after 10 years to use dont correctly in French.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day

The IMLD Poster for 2010. Others can be found here.

The IMLD Poster for 2010. Others can be found here.

Language is so much more than just “how we communicate”. Language evokes our emotions – forming our poems, stories, songs and many more powerful forms of self-expression. It shapes who we are, and it connects us to other people. Language is for more than being simply understood, it is allows us to be able to understand one another at a much deeper level.

Saturday is International Mother Language Day (IMLD), and it is a day to celebrate one’s identity. IMLD gives us an opportunity to recognize and appreciate celebrate the beauty that comes with the 6,000+ languages on earth. The comparison is often made that endangered languages are like endangered animals: we could only have five or ten, but wouldn’t the world be a whole lot less pretty and interesting without them? Our different languages shouldn’t be seen as causing confusion, or misunderstandings, they are each and every one an essential part of the fabric that makes up humanity. With each loss of a language, we lose another point-of-view to being human. We lose how that language’s speakers saw the world, and so we lose another lens with which to look upon the world.

According to the last census figures, 45% of Torontonians don’t speak English in the home. Many Canadians across the country have a Heritage language. My gramma on my mum’s side grew up speaking Dutch, my grampa grew up with an Italian-immigrant father, and my dad’s first language was Italian; his parents emigrated from Italy just before he was born. We should celebrate where we come from, and remember that our identity is shaped not just by being Thai, Cree, or French, but also by the languages that come with that heritage.

My first language is English, and it is easy to take for granted that everywhere I go, English resources surround me. However, for many, English might be the language of work, school, or exteriorities, but their Mother Language is the one used in the home, with the family, and for self-reflection.

There is a concept in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that certain things can’t even be conceived of in a different language. For example, if your language doesn’t have a term for schadenfreude, then you will have a hard time grasping the idea. The idea being roughly, “taking the guilty pleasure from the pain of others” (think people falling over on America’s Funniest Home Videos). However, this hypothesis is found to be untrue. There is no English term for sobremesa, which is a Spanish word describing the lovely and winding conversations had at the dinner table after eating; however, I think most of us can identify with the sentiment. Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be mostly untrue, there are certain things that are different depending on your first language. I have read Leonard Cohen translated into French, and I would argue that there is something indescribable missing when the work is translated—some important part of the beauty is translated out of the text.

This Saturday you should consider promoting, teaching, and using any languages you know how to speak. But don’t stop there! Continue on after Saturday. Don’t let it stop with one day. We should all be proud of our languages, and we should be excited to share our heritage with those around us.

So whatever your heritage is, whatever languages you speak, and wherever you come from, use International Mother Tongue Day to think about the steps have led to you being where you are today. The world is so much better with variety and diversity, and language is another way we can prove that point.

So go out and prove that point!

Council of Europe poster for Minority Language Rights

Council of Europe poster for Minority Language Rights

And, if you are in Toronto please join us at Maria A Shchuka library from 10-4 for family-friendly activities that celebrate many languages.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

Saving languages in a new home

This week we are looking at ELAT, which works to document the endangered and minority languages of Toronto. Specifically, the interview focusses on their first project: working on the Harari language.

This interview is a bit different because there were two people interviewed, but not simultaneously. Anastasia Riehl is a director of the organization; however, in order to get a first-hand view of the Harari language. I also asked some questions of Abdullah Sherif, a Harari speaker who has worked with ELAT on the transcription and translation of recordings in Harari.

 

Michael Iannozzi : You are a part of ELAT, what does that stand for, and what are its objectives?

Anastasia Riehl : ELAT stands for Endangered Language Alliance Toronto. Our objectives are to document endangered languages (as well as other small or understudied languages) spoken in the GTA, to support communities in their efforts to strengthen their languages and to celebrate our multilingual city.

MI : Why is it important to document these languages in Toronto? Why is Toronto such a great place to do this documentation work?

AR : It is important to document these languages wherever they are spoken. Approximately half of the world’s 6000+ languages are at risk of extinction, and many of these have never been studied or recorded. Toronto offers a unique opportunity to undertake documentation work due to the large number and diverse range of languages spoken here, including languages that are globally endangered.

MI : What projects are you currently working on?

AR : Some of our ongoing projects include Sri Lankan Malay, Harari (Ethiopia), Bukhori (language of the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia), Urhobo (Southern Nigeria) and Cellese (Francoprovencal variety in Italy). In all of these cases there are at least a few dozen speakers in the city, and we hope to record a range of individuals for each.

 

I then inquired about ELAT’s work on Harari to Abdullah Sherif, who is a community leader and speaker of the Harari language in Toronto. The following are his responses.

Abdullah with his father Abdusamed

Abdullah with his father Abdusamed

MI : The Harari community appears to be one with a couple thousand speakers in Toronto. How vibrant is the community in Toronto?

Abdullah Sherif : I believe there are more than 2000 Harari people in Toronto but it is true, not all would be categorized as being able to speak the language. I would say the Harari community is very vibrant when taking into consideration their small number. They can be found in every part of the city of Toronto: bankers, nurses, cab drivers, bus drivers,  lawyers, business owners, students at all levels: elementary, secondary, college, university, Master students, PhD students… The community is socially active as well, holding numerous cultural and religious events in large circles and in small ones too.

MI : Harari comes from the Harar region, so where is the Harar region?

AS : Harar is now a walled city in eastern Ethiopia.

MI : Are there languages that are related to Harari?

AS : Harari is a relatively unique language. It is actually a Language Island. It is Semitic [The most well-known Semitic languages may be Arabic and Hebrew] surrounded by Cushitic languages [Such as Somali—many of the languages of the horn of Africa]. A language that is very similar to Harari is spoken by the Silte people from the Gurage community. They happen to be in a region that is relatively far from Harar. Many Hararis were scattered throughout Ethiopia during the 16th century. It is suggested that the Silte’s ancestors are some of those scattered Hararis or at least have been heavily influenced by them.

MI : Why do you think it is important to document the Harari language in Toronto?

AS : I feel it is important to document it because the language has been considered endangered. Many of the youth do not speak it, or do not speak it well, giving credence to the claim that it is endangered. Also, much of the language’s history is almost lost. Documenting it now might encourage people to properly investigate its past and give its future a better chance at survival.

MI : Does the Harari language community have any community places like a restaurant or place of meeting in Toronto?

AS : In spite of the small size of the community, there is a Harari community/heritage centre. What is interesting is there are at least 90 languages in Ethiopia with almost each one associated to a different ethnic Ethiopian community. Hararis are among the smallest in population. Yet, here in Toronto you have the one Ethiopian community centre which serves all Ethiopians, and in addition Hararis have their own independent community centre. It is possible there may be other specific Ethiopian community centres like the Harari one, but I am not aware of any. As for the Hararis, other than that one Community Centre, they also have other medium to small community groups and religious groups. Some of the small groups are called “Affochas” and can be made up of as few members as three people. Affocha loosely translated means “community group”. In Harar there are many Affochas and many types: youth Affocha, women’s Affocha, men’s Affocha, etc. We also consider the larger community centre as an Affocha too.

MI : With almost all the speakers in Ethiopia and Canada being multilingual, what does that mean for the Harari language?

AS : As is already the case, Harari will be heavily influenced by the other languages. Interestingly, Harari speakers in Ethiopia use many Amharic words (Amharic is the official language in Ethiopia) and some were surprised by me when I would use the Harari words where they would have likely used Amharic words. But I am guilty of often using English words in many places while speaking Harari.

MI : How do you think the language can survive in Toronto?

AS : The language will survive only if the youth speak it. For that to happen they need to appreciate its importance.

[Abdullah’s father speaking Harari with captions]

 

I then asked more broad-based questions regarding ELAT and endangered languages in Toronto to Professor Riehl to end the interview.

MI : ELAT produces videos and audio of the language projects. Why is this important to you? What is the power of videos and modern technology for the survival of these languages?

AR : There are various methods of language documentation – collecting wordlists, undertaking grammatical analysis, creating dictionaries, recording audio and video of different styles of speech. All of these are important. At this stage, our focus is on producing short videos which we hope will have broad value and appeal – to linguists studying the languages, to community members interested in preserving examples of their language or using them for educational purposes, and to the general public interested in learning more about the languages and lives of the speakers.

In terms of content, we usually ask the participants to discuss the experience of being a speaker of their language in the context of Toronto – and also where relevant their experience immigrating to the city. In this way, we wish to explore the common themes of the immigrant experience in Toronto and Toronto as a city of languages.

MI : What do you think is the most crucial thing for the survival of Harari, and the other languages studied, in Toronto?

AR : Languages survive by being passed down to younger generations. Once this transmission declines, a language is at risk of disappearing. Although there are often outside forces working against a community’s retention of its language (governmental policies, economic factors, etc.) the motivation for maintaining a language must come from within the community. There are, however, things that others can do to support these communities, such as undertake documentation projects, create educational materials and assist with organizing classes and events.

In talking with endangered language communities in Toronto, I often hear speakers express concern that their language is dying because young people, in particular, are not interested in speaking it. However, I also often hear from young speakers or partial speakers who are very motivated to ensure that their language survives. These young community members are the key to their language’s future. Supporting and collaborating with these individuals by sharing ideas, tools and resources is an important way to ensure a language survives, whether in Toronto or elsewhere in the world.

MI : What can the average person do to help these languages?

AR : Talk to your relatives, friends and neighbours about their linguistic histories. You will be surprised how many people have interesting stories to share. If you meet someone who speaks one of the world’s smaller languages, seek help with documentation. If you are interested in particular languages, you can get involved with the relevant community groups in your area. You can also lend your time, expertise and resources to organizations that work to document and preserve endangered languages. Perhaps most importantly, support a world where multilingualism and the rights of minority language communities are valued.

 

A sincere thank you to Anastasia Riehl and to Abdullah Sherif. The work they do is undeniably valuable. Every language in the world is worth saving and documenting. In recent decades with so many communities fracturing and moving to various parts of the world, the widespread pieces of the community cannot keep their language alive when surrounded by a new language. These efforts at documentation are important because these languages have not been studied a great deal, but also because the communities in Toronto might speak a different variety or dialect of the language than the people who remain where the language is originally “from”.

If you want to learn more, please follow this link to the Endangered Language Alliance of Toronto: http://www.elalliance.com

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

The West Coast’s “Victoria Dainty”

This week’s interview involves a discussion of the English of the West Coast—and in particular that of Victoria, British Colombia. We often have a hard time distinguishing people from most parts of Canada (Quebec and the East Coast aside), and from Ontario to BC, the accents may appear on the surface to be roughly the same.

However, Professor Alexandra D’Arcy studies Victoria English, and she has found that the similarities we see today weren’t so similar in the past. She studies the language diachronically, which means over a period of time—in her case a long period of time. If you do interviews in a community and leave, then you can’t discover the changes over time, except by comparing the older speakers to the younger ones, and by making assumptions about the differences the older people have from the younger. By studying Victoria’s English using recordings and interviews over more than a century of time, Professor D’Arcy can see the changes happening over the years through the voices of the people from the past.

She was kind enough to explain how this all works, and how Victoria used to be a much more distinct accent than it is today.

 

Fort Victoria before becoming Victoria proper. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fort Victoria before becoming Victoria proper. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Iannozzi : I think some people think of Canadian English as having two varieties: Newfoundland and everywhere else. How do you see English in Canada?

Alexandra D’Arcy : Well, I see lots of diversity. East of Ontario we have Quebec, the Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador (and of course, Newfoundland is defined by dialect variation). That entire area has a rich history, with various influences in terms of historical input—regionally, linguistically, religiously, ethnically. From Ontario to BC, however, things aren’t quite as undifferentiated as the rhetoric suggests. We forget that the cities are one thing but that the vast rural and semi-rural areas of the country are another thing entirely, and they contribute a lot to the story of Canadian English. Those voices get backgrounded, but that’s starting to change. More and more sociolinguists are getting out of the cities, and so our view of Canadian English is about to change. These are exciting times.

MI : English has an enormous geographic area in Canada, so where would you say the varieties are? Is it as easy as dividing up the country? If it isn’t, why not?

AD : That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is a nuanced one. There are broad regions, definitely—just look at the Atlas of North American English or Charles Boberg’s large-scale survey work. Some of those regions align with provinces, but others don’t. And then within regions there are smaller dialect boundaries, and so on. But of course, that’s the typical picture that emerges from researching dialects. The more detailed you get, the more you build features beyond sound into the picture, the more diversity you root out. So, the more work we do on Canadian English, the more regional angles we apply, the more diversified the picture will become. And of course, the emergence of archives of recordings spanning larger lengths of time is going to bring an entirely new perspective to our understanding of English in Canada.

MI : Your work has focussed on the English spoken in Victoria, BC, and you have collected data spanning a great length of time. How much data do you have, what kind of data is it, and how much time does the data span?

AD : Great question! I have about 300 hours of data—oral histories and sociolinguistic interviews. The oral histories come from two main sources: University of Victoria Libraries had some archival materials that I was able to acquire rights to, and then I was also able to secure rights to a subset of the Imbert Orchard Collection, through the CBC and the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). Most of these recordings come from the 1960s, and we used the RBCM Archives to focus on speakers in the Imbert Orchard Collection who were born and/or raised in Victoria. So, between those two collections we have 42 locals, born 1865–1936. The bulk of the sociolinguistic interviews were conducted in 2012, with local Victorians. This collection has 162 speakers, born 1913–1996. I’m pretty proud of this corpus, actually. We have lots of first generation Victorians, but we also have second, third, fourth, five, and sixth generation speakers. I think that’s pretty cool. But, if you put the archival recordings together with the contemporary ones, you end up with a window on local speech that spans just over 130 years. So that’s exciting. We’re also very lucky because the University of Victoria Libraries holds the entire history of the local newspaper, which started as The British Colonist in 1858. In fact, the archives have been digitized through to 1920. After that, it’s into the microfiche files, but that’s fun in its own way. But what this gives us is complementarity of data. We have the spoken record, through the recordings in my lab, and we have a formal written record, through The (British/Times) Colonist. This gives us additional insight to the history of the variety.

MI : What have been your findings about Victoria English?

AD : Victoria English today isn’t strikingly different from what you hear in Vancouver or Toronto. Some locals tell of being asked where they’re from when they visit other places, but there’s no signature in their speech that indexes or registers ‘Victoria’, locally or otherwise. However, there was a time when a certain sector of the population had a distinctive accent. I call it Victoria Dainty, but on the island it’s known as ‘The Van Isle Accent’. It comes from the posh private schools, established and run by English Reform teachers, which served to entrench English norms and—as one scholar framed it—allowed the children of immigrants to ‘grow up English’. You still hear this accent in Victoria, but the speakers are all in their late sixties and older now. It’s truly an obsolescent variety, and to get a sense of how unique it is, most Victorians don’t realize that they’re speaking to another local when they talk to these people. In fact, many are surprised when I tell them this accent exists and are astounded when I play recordings. They really are something to hear…we’re talking in some cases third and fourth generation Victorians.

As to contemporary Victoria English, well, the picture is quite complex, but I don’t think that’s particularly surprising. For some features, like the introduction of direct quotes, Victoria English is no different from Toronto English, or Perth English in Australia for that matter (e.g. I’m like ‘No way!’). But some aspects of local speech make us truly Canadian, like general extenders (e.g. I like art and stuff like that) and the way the vowel in words like goose is pronounced with the tongue more forward in the mouth. But of course, there are also things that seem to set Victoria apart. Whereas most Canadian dialects shifted pretty early on to words like tube pronounced as ‘toob’, Victoria English tends to keep the older pronunciation,’tjoob’ [the British pronunciation].

MI : Has the English of Victoria changed over the decades, and if so in what way? Has it moved closer to or further from what we would consider “Standard Canadian English”; that is the English of Central Canada [Also known as CBC English].

AD : In a very fundamental way, Victoria has always been part of the General Canadian dialect region. The greatest proportion of settlers and immigrants has consistently been other (i.e. Loyalist and Loyalist-descended) Canadians. But, Victoria wasn’t erected as a seat of government or trade—it was erected to establish a colony where the children of English immigrants could maintain their ‘inalienable heritage’ as British subjects. In other words, there was some pretty heavy ideological baggage in the city’s roots! In so far as moving closer to, or away from, General Canadian English, well, that’s hard to say. The target is moving, because of course, change is ongoing and constant. Victoria participates in those changes, but the devil is in the details. Does the city participate in the same way, with the same end result? That’s something I’m going to leave hanging for now.

MI : If you could go back and collect something extra about the data you have from the past, what do you wish had been collected?

AD : It would be great to know how long those people’s families had been in Victoria. For the contemporary recordings we know that we have first to sixth generation Victorians. That’s a super informative angle, but unfortunately it’s very difficult to track with the older data. Most of the speakers were likely first generation, but it’s possible that some are second and third generation. When did their families get here, and where did they come from?

MI : Have the subjects covered in interviews changed over time?

AD : Absolutely, but that’s a function of the materials. In most cases we are getting oral histories, and the topics are typically specific to the function of the oral history when it was collected (was it about the history of UVic, was it about growing up on the island, etc.). The beauty of these materials though is that they contain personal stories, and of course, the narrative is the gold of the sociolinguistic interview, so this brings a critical degree of comparability. If people are engaged in relaxed, casual conversation, it helps align the data. At the same time, we know that topic, setting, interviewer and the like all affect speaker performance, so this affects absolute comparability. We do our best with what we have. [The environment in which the interview is taking place and interviewer herself can and do affect the way people speak. For example, if you are speaking to you best friend who is recording you at your home, you will speak differently than if it were someone from the CBC, and you were in a studio]

MI : In light of the current use of social media, YouTube, television news, etc. Do you think projects such as yours will be easier or more difficult in a hundred years?

AD : Thanks to the Internet, there’s no doubt that potential sources are multiplying, but it all comes down to what your research questions are. At the end of the day, they’re what determines what is usable and what is valid, empirically. A lot of online content is accessible (and let’s assume that we are talking about content that is genuinely public and available for data mining), but that does not automatically entail that it is appropriate and justifiable given the aims of the research. And frankly, without detailed information about the speakers, the information-load of the materials is hampered. Give me an old-fashioned oral history any day!

MI : If someone from the turn of the 20th century Victoria sat in a coffeeshop today, what would most strike her about the English in Victoria today?

AD : I think their largest impression would be ‘What is this? Why does it sound so horrid? It’s not proper!’ Of course, I don’t believe any of this and I don’t agree, but nobody likes language change—it’s never “for the better”. On top of that, beliefs and impressions about language are inextricably linked in beliefs and impressions about people. And let’s face it, even the most “respectable” elderly women wear pants these days, so just imagine the reaction to early 21st century adolescents, the very same group that is responsible for “ruining” the language more generally!

MI : Do you have a recording or interview that is your favourite? A person who you like best from the recordings? If so why?

AD : I actually don’t. There are stories and exchanges that really capture me, but not individuals per se. Of course, some of the recordings are less engaging than others, but that’s human nature. Generally I find that if you take the time to listen, and I mean really attend to what is being shared, most people have interesting and compelling lives in some respect. Everyone has experienced joy, sadness, anger, love—the stories around these experiences are funny or heartwarming or heartbreaking. Not everyone is an accomplished story teller, but between the lines is life. Mostly what I feel is lucky—lucky that I got the opportunity to listen to people.

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

A sincere thank you to Professor D’Arcy for taking the time to talk about her fascinating research. It may not seem important at the time, but the interviews that take place with family, friends, or people on the street, may end up becoming important tools for linguists, sociologists, and others to study the way things once were.

Recording family members’ stories, and having them discuss the stories of their life will make an important piece of your family history, and a cherished record of your family’s past. It may also someday help someone like Alexandra D’Arcy learn about the history, culture, and community of which your family is a part.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

French Elsewhere in Canada

When someone thinks of French in Canada, their first thought is usually of Quebec. If pressed to think of another French-speaking part of Canada, many will think of Acadian French (the French spoken in New Brunswick and other parts of the Maritimes). However, more than a million Francophones live outside Quebec, and half a million live in Ontario.

Professor Terry Nadasdi (University of Alberta) has done a great deal of research on French in Canada, and in particular in Ontario and the Prairies. There is a distinction made between Acadian French and what is called Laurentian French. Laurentian French is the French of Québec and the French spoken in Ontario and the Western Provinces. However, Professor Nadasdi has found that the French spoken in Canada isn’t the same everywhere. In particular, he argues that, outside Quebec, Francophones are always in the minority in at least the province, if not the community itself. This distinction makes the French in these communities different from that spoken in Quebec.

Because most French-speaking communities are in the minority, they are also rarely monolingual—they need to speak English to at least some degree in order to function in their communities. Professor Nadasdi is interested in finding how this knowledge of English impacts the French spoken by these minority communities.

He was kind enough to answer some questions I had about Laurentian French outside Quebec.

 

Flag of Franco-Albertans

Flag of Franco-Albertans

Michael Iannozzi : What first brought you to study Laurentian French outside Quebec?

Terry Nadasdi : My interest in French outside of Quebec stems from my interest in bilingualism. For the most part, minority French and bilingualism go hand-in-hand. Since my background is in sociolinguistics, the topic provides me with an interesting opportunity to study both language use patterns of bilinguals and the impact of these patterns on linguistic forms.

MI : Why is it important to study the French spoken outside Quebec, and how do you expect it to differ from that of the major Quebecois cities that are often studied?

TN : The context in which the varieties are used is different, so we can expect some linguistic differences (related to bilingualism). That said, there will always be more similarities than differences, given that they are both Laurentian. It is important to study French in minority settings for a variety of reasons. First, it gives us insight into the language of bilinguals and gives credibility to the variety. Minority varieties are often stigmatized and performing research helps legitimize them and also reveals their complexities.

MI : Why is it important to study rural varieties and Franco-Ontarian?

TN : I think it is generally important to study minority varieties for the reasons outlined above. It gives them legitimacy and provides information about the range of variation in Canadian French. Another reason would be to provide resources for second language learners who will interact with Franco-Ontarians and also to allow the Franco-Ontarian education system to determine the extent to which the local variety differs from the standard one (i.e. the one used in schools).

MI : Why is it important to study rural varieties and Franco-Ontarian, and how do you expect, or how have you found they differ from Quebecois French?

TN : I guess the most important aspect is that bilingualism is central to their identity. Many speakers don’t consider themselves entirely French or English. This is generally viewed as positive. I don’t mean they are not linguistically competent in both, but rather their identity involves both simultaneously. Identify has to do with how you represent yourself when interacting with other, how you want them to see you. For example, some speakers purposely use anglicisms when speaking French to remind the listener that they are bilingual.

MI : What is the general health of French outside Quebec, and what do you feel is the best way to promote the use of French outside of Quebec in Canada?

TN : French is fairly well supported on an institutional level. However, monolingual Francophones are rare indeed. Immersion schools are highly effective, and in some regions help maintain French. Ideally, Francophones would always have their own schools. However, there are practical (financial) factors that limit this. Immersion schools are the next best thing. Access to education and cultural events are key to promoting the use of French outside Quebec. It’s also important to have media in French that can bring community members together.

MI : You have done a lot of work on minority French communities, how does the population makeup of a city or town affect the French usage and style of speakers?

TN : Generally, the more Francophones there are at the local level, the more the kind of French spoken resembles that of monolingual Francophones in Quebec. Furthermore, speakers in such communities have a better grasp on both the formal and informal registers. When there a few Francophones, the school becomes the main place where French is used and some informal variants fall by the wayside.

MI : Finally, is there any perception of French speakers outside Quebec that you’d like to clarify or change?

TN : Some believe that minority speakers have a poor mastery of both English and French. This reveals, though, a poor understanding of bilingualism and non-standard speech varieties.

 

Regarding the study and discussion surrounding French-language education in many provinces outside Quebec, the students of French-immersion schools are expected to learn, and speak, the Quebecois variety of French—even if they are already fluent in French, but just in an Ontarian or Prairie variety of it. There has been a great deal of discussion around the importance of letting students feel validated in speaking their own variety of French. In almost all language communities, there is a perceived “correct” way of speaking, and the other dialects or accents are considered substandard. Professor Nadasdi’s work is aiming to correct this perception. By providing research and statistics to these varieties of French, there is scientific evidence that the French isn’t subpar or of lower quality.

This effort is especially important because language is a part of identity. When older Francophones are asked how they identify they will likely say “French” or “French-Canadian”. However, younger speakers, who have grown up speaking both national languages, now often self-identify as “bilingual”. They feel that their ability to speak both French and English is not just a skill, but a part of who they are.

A sincere thank you to Professor Terry Nadasdi for taking the time to answer my questions and explain Laurentian French outside Quebec. Just as in English, where there have been stereotypes around “valley-girl”, southern American, or Newfoundland English dialects as being less intelligent; there are also stereotypes surrounding French accents. It is important to remember that the way someone speaks has no bearing on the validity or intelligence of what they are saying.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi