Monday 30 July 2012

Making sense of '–ing' and '–in'

Walking the dog? Or walkin’ the dog?

Language learners living alongside native speakers need to cope with the variation that native speakers use quite unconsciously. For example, if you are a native speaker of English, you probably don’t notice that you vary your pronunciation of the –ing in words like walking or ceiling in very systematic ways, using ‘in’, for example, more often if you are male, more often when you are speaking informally, and more often when –ing is part of a verb.  Language learners are not taught that this is what native speakers do, but have to work it out for themselves.

Research summarised in a previous posting looked at how Polish adult learners of English dealt with variation in –ing, which does not exist in Polish ( ). In another study, Miriam Meyerhoff and Erik Schleef’s research focuses on teenage migrants from Poland to the UK. They found that some patterns of variation are easier to acquire than others and that, surprisingly, it is the social patterning that seems to be the most difficult.

Working in Edinburgh and London, the researchers recorded roughly the same number of locally born and Polish-born teenagers speaking both formally  – reading out a written passage ­ – and more informally, in conversation with a friend and a researcher. The Polish teenagers had been living in the UK between seven months and five years, and had little exposure to English while in Poland.  

The Polish teenagers had acquired only a few of the local native speakers’ patterns of variation.  For example, in London, locally-born teenagers were more likely to pronounce –ing as ‘in’ after a previous /k/ or /g/; so they said, for example, I’ve been cookin’ more often than I’ve been eatin’. The Polish teenagers in London did the same.

However, other patterns seemed more difficult to acquire. Unlike native speakers elsewhere in the world, for some reason teenagers in Edinburgh and London do not use the ‘ing’ pronunciation more often in verbs than nouns. However, the Polish teenagers do. Meyerhoff and Schleef suggest that perhaps they are influenced by a wider range of English speakers than their locally born school friends (TV may be important, for instance); perhaps, too, language learners need more time to learn the complex patterns of language variation they hear from the native speakers around them before they can start to use the variation themselves in their everyday speech.

Surprisingly, the Polish learners did not use ‘in’ more often in informal conversation than when reading aloud, though the locally born teenagers did so, in both London and Edinburgh. The Polish learners also behaved differently when it came to the gender pattern of variation. In London, the pattern was the other way round to the expected, local one. London-born boys used ‘in’ more frequently than the girls, as expected, but for the Polish-born boys in London it was the ‘ing’ pronunciation that was more frequent. In Edinburgh, the social factor that affected the pronunciation the most for the Polish teenagers was not gender but the type of friendship network.

Why should there be a difference in social patterns of variation between the language learners and the native speakers? Meyerhoff and Schleef stress that the Polish teenagers are competent speakers of English, even if they are not yet fully proficient. Part of their language competence, they suggest, must involve recognising that native speakers vary their pronunciation of –ing and that this variation is used to mark social information. They are not yet proficient enough in English to recognise exactly how the native speakers do this, so instead they make sense of the variation by using it to mark social categories that for this age group attract a high degree of attention: gender and friendship networks.   
Meyerhoff, Miriam and Schleef, Erik (2012) Variation, contact and social indexicality in the acquisition of (ing) by teenage migrants. Journal of Sociolinguistics 16: 398-416.

doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2012.00535.x

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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