Faktor X - Mind Meets Machine

Grammatical Combiners

Linguists are tracking down linguistic changes in bilingual people.

“Hey droog .. guess what’s just gone down, dude?” This sentence from a WhatsApp message sent by an ethnic Russian teenager to one of his friends is just one brief example of how young people from ethnic backgrounds are interlacing idioms from their ancestral, or heritage, language with the dominant language of their “host” countries. For the first time ever, one research group now plans to take a comparative approach to investigate, whether and how, these people are permanently changing the grammatical structures of their languages. To do so, two linguists at the University of Stuttgart are studying the speech of young ethnic Russians in the USA.

A woman on a bike has been knocked down by a car. How exactly did it happen? What do the people involved do? The language testing being carried out at the University of Stuttgart's Institute of Linguistics is based on a series of photos, such as this one. The images are presented to a group of test subjects, who are then instructed to describe the scene to someone in the room, a friend via a messenger service on their smartphone, and a policeman whilst being questioned as a witness.

The smartphone is the communication medium of choice among the younger generations. To investigate the impact of this development, an international research group headed by Professor Sabine Zerbian is looking into how this form of entertainment is affecting grammar as an example.

All of the test subjects have one thing in common: all of them have Russian ancestors but grew up in the USA. In their “Grammatical Dynamics in a Language Contact Context – a Comparative Approach” project, Professor Sabine Zerbian and her doctoral student Yulia Zuban want to study how the members of this group speak Russian and English. The German Research Foundation (DFG) will be funding the project until 2021 because Zerbian is collaborating with five other institutes at different German universities. This project will deliver the first ever comparative results of whether and how bilinguals alter grammatical structures in a total of five languages.

Sprache verändert sich ständig, auch bei monolingualen Sprechern und Sprecherinnen

Prof. Sabine Zerbian, Universität Stuttgart

One World Leads to Another

“Language is subject to continuous change even among monolingual speakers”, Zerbian explains. “But, we suspect that such language contract situations are subject to special dynamics. Language is all about communication. One wants to be understood and so one becomes creative. So, we're looking at the resulting linguistic peculiarities”. Among the bilinguals, the team is focusing on so-called heritage speakers i.e., people who speak a language at home that is important in terms of their families’ cultural heritage, but also use German or English as their dominant language because they grew up in Germany or the USA. “We look at grammatical developments in the speech of these speakers, both in the heritage and the dominant languages”.

speech sample in Russian

The group plans to investigate Greek, Turkish and Russians spoken as heritage languages in Germany and the USA. This may reveal not only general language changes but also provide insights into how information about language is communicated or into the vocabularies and linguistic competencies of these groups. “Instead of seeing multilingualism as a barrier, we see it as an enriching language quality with its own particular dynamics”, say Zerbian. The findings from the study could later be used, for example, to improve the performance of voice recognition programswhen, for instance, a speaker switches between languages.

For their heritage Russian with dominant English subproject, Zerbian and Zuban will record speech situations in connection with story boards with ethnic Russians in the USA. The 30 participants are all young adults between 16 and 18 years old or adults in their late 20s. The researchers will then look at how the spoken language differs from the standard written form and what happens when the volunteers converse informally with friends or formally with, for example, policemen.

Monolinguists as a Control Group

However, consultations with the other institutes will be necessary before the two researchers fly over to the USA, as everyone involved wants to agree a standard approach to recording and codifying the various speech situations. This will result in a shared database that everyone will later be able to access to work with and carry out research into all the recorded texts. This will enable, for example, comparisons to be drawn between heritage Greek in Germany and the USA and studies into whether the Greek spoken in Germany and USA changes is in the same way.

As a phonologist interested in spoken language, Zerbian plans to focus her studies on melody, rhythm and intonation. Previous studies have shown only that melodic intonation is subject to continuous change and that languages have mutual influence on one another. “We’ll be looking at sentence phrasing, word grouping and accent distribution to emphasize important aspects”. To be able to make sense of the results, the group will also be surveying the speech habits of monolinguals, such as Germans in Germany, Turks in Turkey and so on. “This will enable us to see how monolinguals manage the same tasks. We all know what the grammar guides prescribe, but encountering the 'standard' language in actual speech is pretty rare”.

The researcher cites the following example: in reciting the story board about the accident during a pilot project that has already been completed, some multilingual test subjects emphasized the word “her” in the sentence “he went over to her”. “That's unexpected”, Zerbian explains: in this context one would usually place the emphasis on “over to”. “Were we to come across multiple examples of the same thing, we could posit a grammatical cause”. Curiously, the research group also observed this intonation in the monolingual control group. “That just shows how important control groups are, as, in this case, we're dealing with a general linguistic change”.

Daniel Völpel


This image shows Andrea Mayer-Grenu

Andrea Mayer-Grenu

Scientific Consultant, Research Publications

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