Published: June 13, 2017

Researcher receives NSF grant to study dialects

Contact(s): Kimberly Popiolek College of Arts and Letters office: (517) 432-1561

Michigan State University associate professor Cristina Schmitt is leading the way in one area of linguistics research and recently was awarded a three-year $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to advance that research even further.

Schmitt, a faculty member in MSU’s Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages, is using the NSF funding to investigate first language acquisition of Spanish-speaking children under conditions where two or more languages or dialects interact and influence each other.

Up until now, most first language acquisition studies regarding how children acquire a grammar have focused on the acquisition of a single dialect in relatively homogeneous speech communities, while very little has been done on acquisition in situations of high variability due to language and dialectal differences, according to Schmitt.

Schmitt’s research will focus on children ages 3-5 in the immigrant Paraguayan community in Buenos Aires where Paraguayan Spanish is in contact with a variety of other Spanish dialects.

“[This community] exhibits a number of properties that make it an ideal testing ground for theories of language acquisition, and particularly for shedding light on the complex interplay between the input data children receive and the grammatical system they construct,” Schmitt said.

Paraguayan Spanish is also unique in that Paraguay is the only country in Latin America with two official languages spoken by almost all the population – Spanish and the native language Guarani. The Spanish spoken there is in contact with the native language, so it’s very different than the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires, she said.

“We are looking at two dialects of Spanish in Buenos Aires that have contradictory grammatical properties and we want to know what the kids are doing with that contradictory input,” Schmitt said. “When the vocabulary is the same, but the dialect is different, it is very easy to think they are speaking the same thing, but they are not. That’s the part where we hope we can help. By discovering the principles used by these Paraguayan children to adapt to the new linguistic environment, we therefore learn something about how all children acquire a language.”

The research team will video and audio record the children of the Buenos Aires community, talking with their parents, with other children, with their teachers and with the researchers. In the end, Schmitt expects to have 200-300 hours of recordings, which will be transcribed and uploaded into the Child Language Data Exchange System, or CHILDES, managed by Carnegie Mellon University, where the data will be available to researchers worldwide.

The research team also will do experimental work and analysis. One goal of the study is to combat any misconceptions that differences in dialect are an indicator of intelligence or other cognitive abilities.

In many classrooms across the United States, more than one language or dialect is spoken. For instance, speakers of African-American, Chicano and other varieties of English attend schools where the language of instruction is standard American English, Schmitt said.

“This proposed research may help inform educators and policymakers of how children cope with dialectal contact, if we can make teachers understand that the differences in dialect are real and not to be ignored and if we can figure out ways to enlighten the community itself, not just the teachers, to be more aware of the differences,” she said.

Christina Schmitt, MSU Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and African Languages