Marielle Lerner Dissertation defense

Marielle Lerner will be defending her disertation: "The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Variation in a Mexican Immigrant Community," on October 13 at 3:30p.m. in Stiteler Hall, room B26.


Stiteler Hall is located at 208 S. 37th St., between Walnut St. and Locust Walk. Room B26 is on the ground floor. 


Title: The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Variation in a Mexican Immigrant Community
Supervisor: Gillian Sankoff
Committee: Jennifer Smith, Meredith Tamminga, Charles Yang


In language change originating within the speech community, child acquisition begins with “faithful transmission of the adult system” (Labov 2007:346). On entering their peer group, children participate in incrementation of change. Input from multiple generations of speakers is arguably necessary for children to advance a language change. With stable variable input, children are reported to acquire their parents’ probabilistic usage, then maintain it among peers. This dissertation asks what can be learned about the acquisition of sociolinguistic variation from a case where children receive limited generational evidence about their community’s linguistic variables. I examine whether these youngest speakers participate in incrementing change, or whether they reinterpret the pre-existing variation.

Study participants are six families of immigrants from Puebla in the Philadelphia Mexican community, consisting primarily of a first generation of young adults and a growing second generation of children. Participants themselves recorded day-to-day family interactions, including speech from both caregivers and children. I analyze the acquisition of two variable features: a morphological alternation in the 2^nd person singular preterit inflection between standard ‑/aste, ‑iste/ and non-standard /‑astes/,/‑istes/; and frication and deletion of the voiced alveolar flap /ɾ/ in syllable-final position. Addition of non-standard preterit /–s/ is widely reported in other Spanish varieties; change in progress has not been previously observed. Frication of syllable-final /ɾ/ has previously been reported as undergoing change.

I find that children use the standard [ɾ] variant of syllable-final /ɾ/ significantly less frequently than their parents. This study also provides the first report of syllable-final /ɾ/ deletion in Central Mexican Spanish, present among both parents and children. Furthermore, the younger generation deletes much more frequently while producing the fricative infrequently or not at all. Children also use the non-standard preterit suffixes significantly more frequently than caregivers, a development that would be atypical of the acquisition of stable variation. I show that even with reduced generational input for the children of this community, they are participating in language change. This study also replicates the finding that both caregiver and peer group influences are detectable in the variable aspects of children’s grammars in the process of language acquisition. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 3:30pm - 5:30pm
Stiteler Hall, Room B-26