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Thursday’s posts look at sociolinguistics or child language acquisition: accents, stereotypes and how children learn to speak

In a recent post I was asked about children acquiring accents others than those their parents have.

We see it all the time: my family, for instance, is made up of two parents with Northern English accents and two children with Scottish accents.

You have to remember, when considering this, that the human race is fickle.

When you acquire a language, a lot more goes on than Chomsky would have you think. Of course, the theory I discussed last week has it’s good points and explains a lot of anomalies, but I say: Explain me this.

Children do not acquire some sort of “universal grammar”; they acquire their own speech community’s grammar. Scottish English has slightly different grammar to English English, and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has a very complicated grammar system.

Children also acquire, on top of grammar and vocabulary and intonation, accents and dialects.

They acquire them in a much more intelligent way than we would give them credit for.

From a very young age, children learn the social context surrounding their accent. If a young girl is acquiring an accent, she will use non-standard forms less than her male peers. All children learn to use more non-standard forms in “fun” times (playing, being close to their parent, and so on), and dial down their use when it comes to formal situations (education and being told off, for instance).

As you can see, children don’t simply talk like their parents. There’s something really complicated going on, which Chomsky tried to work out but didn’t quite get there.

Children learn, from a very young age, how social language is.

Let’s make ourselves a wee case study.

This is, eh, Amy.

Amy

Amy’s family lives in Cardiff, but her parents are both from London.

As a young child, Amy learnt to talk like her parents, she picked up their accent, dialect and other linguistic ticks of her parents, as these are the people who were around her most.

However, Amy then started going to playgroup (nursery/kindergarten/crèche, or whatever you call it where you’re from). She very quickly realised that she doesn’t talk like the rest of her peers. Suddenly, Amy started doing everything she could to drop the London accent and pick up the Cardiff one.

She probably won’t have the strongest accent out of all of her friends, but she will succeed in picking up the accent.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and Amy is going to University. She got into Newcastle university.

When she gets there, she doesn’t pick up the accent. She starts glottal stopping (dropping her Ts) a lot more, and maybe picks up one or two words, but she can’t, for the life of her, talk like her peers.

This last bit strengthens Chomsky’s idea of a Language Acquisition Device, but the first part does not…

So, once more, we’re left in the dark with our theories of child language and dialect acquisition!

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