The sociolinguistic monitor in second language acquisition

Thematic Section: The development of social meaning in heterogeneous speech communities
social meaning, contact-induced variation and change, developmental sociolinguistics, language policy, language ideology

Erik Schleef, University of Salzburg

The sociolinguistic monitor is hypothesised to be a cognitive mechanism that tracks the speech signal for socially meaningful cues of variable features and monitors the frequency of these language forms (Labov et al. 2011). Ideas about the sociolinguistic monitor have been most widely tested in perception – in a form of the matched guise test in which the frequency of target features is manipulated. Research in this tradition has focused on sounds, e.g. the pronunciation of the ending (ing) in its two variants –ing and –in. Labov et al. (2011) found speakers to be heard as more unprofessional with increasing token numbers of –in. Evaluations did not change considerably after three such tokens.
Methods used to explore the workings of the sociolinguistic monitor have so far not been applied to non-native acquisition of English. Although many non-native speakers do not produce variable features in the same way native speakers do, learners who aim for near-native proficiency, need to acquire the social meanings associated with variable feature. This study explores the developmental process of acquiring the social meanings of (ing), tracking their acquisition from B2 to C2 proficiency levels.
Data was collected among German-speaking learners of English. We produced guises based on one text and one speaker with varying token numbers of –in, focusing on only one evaluative scale: that of professionalism. Respondents heard several audio recordings of a news speaker, each with different numbers of target tokens, and they were asked to evaluate the voice they heard. Preliminary results partly mirror those of Labov et al. (2011). The speaker is heard as more unprofessional with increasing token numbers up to a point where more tokens do not change evaluation any more. However, social meanings of (ing) are acquired very late and a logarithmic pattern emerges only for the most advanced learners.