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Friday, February 28, 2014 - 12:00pm

IRCS Conference Room

Cynthia Clopper
Department of Linguistics
Ohio State University

The role of experience in dialect perception across the lifespan

Regional variation in American English has been documented by sociolinguists for over a century and their descriptions have been used to generate maps depicting the primary dialect regions in the United States. More recently, perceptual dialectologists have explored non-linguists’ beliefs about regional variation in American English to generate maps depicting the primary “folk” dialect regions in the United States. My research integrates this earlier work on signal-based and belief-based dialect mapping through the exploration of non-linguists’ perceptual dialect categories. To examine the combined effects of non-linguists’ beliefs about and their interpretation of variation in the speech signal, a free classification task was developed in which participants are asked to sort a set of unfamiliar talkers by regional dialect based on their speech. No regional labels are provided and participants are permitted to make as many groups of talkers as they want. The free classification task has been conducted with midwestern university students, non-native speakers of English, young adults with high-functioning autism, and children and adults between 8 and 80 years old. The results reveal consistent clusters of talkers from stereotyped regions, such as the South and New England, suggesting robust representations of these dialects across populations. However, the younger children and young adults with high-functioning autism exhibited different classification strategies and lower overall accuracy than the older children and neurotypical adults. Further, the non-native adults were the least successful of all participant groups at integrating across linguistic variables to group talkers by dialect. These population differences suggest that experience with variation plays a critical role in the development of robust perceptual dialect categories.