R. L. Starr

Sociolinguistic Variation in Mandarin-English Dual Immersion Programs


Central to the study of how language functions in society is the analysis of linguistic variation— differences in how language is used among different people and in different situations. In addition to knowing what is grammatical in their own language, native speakers understand how to use language appropriately in various contexts (e.g., formal vs. informal settings), and what types of language are likely to be used by what sorts of people (e.g., men vs. women); this set of skills is known as “communicative competence” (Hymes 1972). In developing our understanding of linguistic variation, it is crucial that we examine how, and when, speakers acquire communicative competence. While some sociolinguists have argued in the past that children do not begin to exhibit patterns of stylistic variation until early adolescence (e.g., Labov 1970), scholars have come to accept that young children can and do engage in consistent and meaningful variation (Andersen 1990, Roberts 1994, Kornhaber & Marcos 2000, a.o.). Indeed, a consensus has been reached that the acquisition of communicative competence is an integral part of the language acquisition process (Romaine 1984:261). Recent studies have provided a window into how children acquire sociolinguistic variation as they acquire language, mirroring the variation patterns of their caregivers (Smith et al. 2007).

When children first enter school, however, they encounter new patterns of variation, new social categories, and perhaps a new language (or two). Those students who do attend school in a new language are often dependent upon the input they receive in school in order to develop their communicative competence in that language. This situation becomes more complicated when multiple varieties of a language co-exist in a single school. In such a setting, members of the school community must learn to negotiate between varieties, as well as between languages. While limited previous literature has broadly outlined the issues that can arise in such a school environment (Rubinstein-Avila 2002), no research has yet examined language use patterns in dialectally-diverse classrooms. Indeed, there is little previous work on linguistic variation in classrooms of any kind, or on how student outcomes relate to the patterns of variation they encounter in school. Rigorous analysis of how teachers and students use and talk about language is a vital step in developing an understanding of student acquisition of new languages and varieties in school, a key topic in language education research.

In this project, I have investigated what sociolinguistic knowledge students in their first years of elementary school acquire in a dialectally-diverse multilingual setting, and how this knowledge manifests in their language use. This question is addressed through analyses of the language use patterns and metalinguistic discourse of teachers and students, using data drawn from a year-long study of a Mandarin-English two-way immersion program in the United States.