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American Speech 77.2 (2002) 184-194

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Individual Variation in the Acquisition of Postvocalic /r/:
Day Care and Sibling Order as Potential Variables

Donna Starks
University of Auckland

Donn Bayard
University of Otago


IT IS A WELL-KNOWN FACT that children learn the variety of English spoken in the community into which they are born, and that this variety is often different from that of their parents. The prevailing explanation has focused on peer influences. Fischer's (1958) exploratory work on a "model New England [10-year-old] boy," Roberts and Labov's (1995) and Roberts's (1997) quantitative research on the vowels of Philadelphian children, Cheshire's (1978) work with 9-17-year-olds in Edinburgh, and Wolfram's (1989) study of African American children from 18 months of age have shown probable peer influences on the speech of younger speakers. Others, such as Thomas (1996) and Eckert (1997), have noted that newer changes are more susceptible to peer influences than more established ones. Studies of younger children in second-dialect acquisition point to a similar conclusion. These studies concentrate on a social environment where the parents' dialect differs from that of the children's peers. Trudgill (1986), in his examination of the speech of 7-year-old twins who moved from Britain to Australia, found that although the patterns of acquisition differed, both twins acquired Australian vowels within six months of their arrival. Chambers's (1992) study of six Canadian children who immigrated to Britain builds on this point. His study shows that younger children are more likely to acquire second-dialect features than their older siblings.

Some researchers have claimed that parental influences diminish when children enter school (Chambers 1995, 159; Eckert 1997, 162). For example, in a study of the newly formed community of Milton Keynes in Britain, Kerswill (1994, 1996) notes that many of the parental influences in the 4-year-olds are absent in the speech of the 8-year-olds. The research on parental influences on young children is only recently starting to emerge (Eckert 1997). Three studies are of particular interest: Kerswill's (1994, 1996) work on children in Milton Keynes, Payne's (1980) research contrasting new immigrants with older established residents in Philadelphia, [End Page 184] and Roberts's (1997) analysis of new sound changes in children born in Philadelphia. These researchers provide detailed studies of children as young as 3-4 years of age and contrast the language use of the children with the language of their parents.

Both Payne (1980) and Kerswill (1994, 1996) point to a mild parental effect on children's language acquisition. Payne demonstrates that while children learn many of the features of the community into which they are born, they may not learn the more complex rules if those rules are not found in the speech of their parents. Kerswill has also discovered a considerable degree of interspeaker variation. He mentions that even among the four-year-olds in Milton Keynes, only some features show evidence of parental effect, and that for these features, there is considerable variability. In Kerswill's study, three patterns emerged. Some of the four-year-olds in Milton Keynes accommodated in the direction of their older age-mates, some modeled features of their speech on one or the other parent, and others chose an intermediate form. This raises the obvious question of why this should be the case.

The present study reports on a small set of data from four children from three separate families. All were born and raised in New Zealand with North American-born parents. It describes a number of variables in the children's speech but focuses on postvocalic /r/, a feature found in many varieties of North American English (NAmE), but not found in most varieties of New Zealand English (NZE). It was chosen because one of the children examined in a prior study showed surprisingly high instances of postvocalic /r/ (Bayard 1995a). This paper contrasts the language use of the four children and...


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pp. 184-194
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Archived 2005
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