Language use can go on a roller-coaster ride during childhood as kids adopt and abandon vernacular language patterns, a North Carolina State University study has found.
"We found that there is a 'roller-coaster effect,' featuring an ebb and flow in a child's use of vernacular English over the course of his or her language development," says Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of English Linguistics at NC State and co-author of several recent papers describing the research.
One implication of the finding involves education, since teachers often advocate teaching standard English early in a childhood education.
"This approach does seem to work at first but it doesn't last," said Wolfram.
In other words, if a school system wants its students to graduate high school with a strong foundation in standard English, it may have to revisit standard English later in the education curriculum.
Specifically, the researchers found that children come to school speaking English with a relatively high number of vernacular features. Then, through the first four grades of elementary school, those features are reduced, as children adopt more standard English language patterns.
As the children move toward middle school, the level of vernacular rises - though many children often reduce their use of vernacular again as they enter high school.
"This finding reveals a cyclic pattern in the use of African-American vernacular English that no one expected to see during children's language development," said Janneke Van Hofwegen, a research associate at NC State and co-author of the study.
The researchers noted that, while their data looked solely at African-American children, the findings might be applicable more broadly to other groups.
The study began in 1990, following 88 African-American children from central North Carolina in order to track their language development. The study is ongoing, with 68 of the original participants still being tracked.