Monday, 17 June 2013

How far does language use reflect identity?

In an increasingly globalised and mobile world, migration is now just a way of life for many people.  This has naturally led to more and more diverse settings for language contact and multilingualism.  Chloe Diskin was interested in exploring the idea that a migrant’s identity plays a significant role in language acquisition.  To do this, she decided to study how features of spoken English are acquired and used in spontaneous conversation by non-native speakers (NNS).  Previous research into this area has shown that NNS whose spoken language use most closely resembles that of native speakers (NS) tend to feel more integrated into society. 

Diskin focused on two different uses of the word like in her study.  Firstly, she considered the use of like as a discourse marker.  Discourse markers are used by NS in conversation for a number of reasons but mainly to ease communication between the participants and add ‘hidden meaning’ to their conversation.  For example, like could be used as the speaker searches for the right word, expresses an approximate quantity, introduces an example or explanation, tries to lessen the force or impact of something they’ve said or repairs a ‘false start’ in the conversation.

The second use of like is known as ‘quotative like’ and is a feature which is currently provoking much interest and discussion in the linguistic world as it seems to be undergoing some rapid changes in use.  ‘Quotative’ words introduce speech and are traditionally words like say or tell.  Over the past 10-15 years like has started to dominate as a quotative, a trend that seems to be led by young females.

Diskin wanted to investigate how closely NNS’s use of these two functions of like correlated with that of NS in Ireland.  She took her sample of NS data from a bank of speech recordings made from 1990 to 1994. The recordings were all conversations between young Irish women.  Her NNS data was taken from informal interviews with two migrant women who are now settled in Ireland.  Agnieszka is Polish and 30 years old, has lived in Dublin for six and a half years and is a Marketing Assistant.  She has an advanced level of English and feels very settled in Dublin, considering herself almost more Irish than Polish now.  Mei Hua is Chinese and is also 30 years old.  She works as a nurse and has lived in Dublin for four years.  She is also very settled in Ireland, living with her Irish boyfriend and enjoying the same level of proficiency in English as Agnieszka. However, Mei Hua left her aging parents back in China and at times feels quite guilty about this.  These details proved important for Diskin later on in her study.

The most ‘fashionable’ form of Irish English at the moment is Dublin English.  In this Dublin English, speakers tend to use the discourse marker ‘like’ mostly in the middle of a phrase, such as in but sometimes I’m like kind of....   Diskin found that this was true of her NS data and also of Agnieszka but not of Mei Hua, who mainly used like at the beginning of phrases, in a way that no NS did.  So it seems that Agnieszka is attempting to adopt the newest and most fashionable trends in Irish English in a way that Mei Hua is not.

Quotative like is emerging as an increasingly prominent feature in recent studies of this fashionable Dublin English.  Agnieszka showed a preference for like over other quotative expressions, again showing how she seems to be following recent trends in Irish English.  On the other hand, Mei Hua only used like as a quotative once in all the data and showed a strong preference for the more traditional say.  Interestingly, in Diskin’s NS data there was not one instance of like being used as a quotative word!  This is most likely to do with the time lapse between the NS and NNS data collection, which goes to show just how quickly a language change can spread!

Diskin speculates that Agnieszka’s and Mei Hua’s language use could reflect how settled and integrated they feel in Irish society.  It seems that Agnieszka, who has a very ‘transnational’ approach to life and admits to feeling more Irish than Polish now, is very clearly adopting the newest trends in spoken language as she attempts to integrate as much as possible into Irish life.  However, although Mei Hua claims to feel settled, she is using much more traditional forms of Irish English than Agnieska.  So maybe ‘feeling integrated’ is not a significant factor in how far NNS acquire spoken speech forms?  Or maybe, whilst Mei Hua appears to be settled in Ireland on the surface, in fact she will never feel rooted there in the same way as Agnieszka, due to her constant unease and guilt about her parents growing old without her in her native China?

This is a fascinating area of research as it proves how deeply entwined our sense of self is with our language acquisition and use.  It definitely lends itself to further research in communities where migrants live and work from day to day.   
Diskin, Chloë (2013) Integration and identity: acquisition of Irish-English by Polish and Chinese migrants in Dublin, Ireland. Newcastle Working Papers in Linguistics 19.1: 67-89.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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