Annenberg School for Communication
Acquisition of sociolinguistic variation
Sociolinguistic variation exists in every natural language and exhibits orderly heterogeneity within (e.g. style) and across (e.g. identity) speakers. In order to fully acquire a language, a child must learn the language’s variation patterns. How children acquire probabilistic variation remains an active problem in the fields of cognitive science and linguistics. Evidence from natural language and experimental work is somewhat mixed: emerging speech communities and experimental work has found children turning variability in their input into regular phonological and syntactic rules, while evidence from established speech communities has found children as young as 3 acquiring the community variation. Here I present the results of an artificial language study designed to test the role of maturation in the acquisition of phonological variation. 8 participants in each of 3 age groups (6-7, 8-9, adult) played a computer game where they were exposed to and then asked to produce a miniature artificial language with differently patterned variation built into the input. We find that participants can learn variation in our artificial language paradigm, with results conditioned on age. While adults tend to match the distribution of their inputs, young children regularize, and the intermediate ages lie somewhere in between. Crucially, however, the individual children who do produce variation produce it in the appropriate contexts of the input, even when they do not match the actual rates of their input. These findings suggest that (1) probabilistic variation may be a skill acquired separately from acquiring the language itself and (2) conditioning of variation is acquired in lock step with acquiring variability.