The Ethan Experience: Native Phonology in Immigrant Offspring

§2 of "Dynamics of dialect convergence." Investigating Change and Variation through Dialect Contact, ed. Lesley Milroy. Special issue of Sociolinguistics 6 (2002): 117-130.

by Jack Chambers © 2002

Sociolinguistic competence has been recognized informally as part of the distinctly human endowment for several years (though, surprisingly, not longer). The first description, and still the best known, came from Dell Hymes (1974: 75), as follows:

Within the social matrix in which [a child] acquires a system of grammar, a child acquires also a system of its use, regarding persons, places, purposes, other modes of communication, etc.–all the components of communicative events, together with attitudes and beliefs regarding them. There also develop patterns of the sequential use of language in conversation, address, standard routines, and the like. In such acquisition resides the child’s sociolinguistic competence (or, more broadly, communicative competence), its ability to participate in its society as not only a speaking, but also a communicating member.

For better or worse, sociolinguists have paid scant attention to the properties of sociolinguistic competence as one of the components of the language faculty. Thanks almost exclusively to Chomsky, grammatical competence is better known or at least more often discussed, but Chomsky also recognizes sociolinguistic competence (which he calls ‘pragmatic competence’ [Chomsky 1980: 92]; discussed in some detail in Chambers 2002).

One of the properties of sociolinguistic competence must be an innate accent-filter. Its existence follows as an inference from what I call the Ethan Experience, named for the son of eastern European immigrants in Toronto. Ethan’s parents are fluent and articulate ESL speakers with (by their own admission) "medium-to-strong accents." Ethan was born and raised in Toronto, and so it is not surprising in any way that he speaks English with the same accent as all his native-born classmates and not at all like his parents. What is surprising is that, even as a pre-schooler, Ethan never acquired his parents’ accent-features, not even in isolated words. This fact is not unique to Ethan, of course, or unusual. In fact, it is so common that it usually goes unremarked, as attributes notable for their absence rather than their presence often do. As it happens, Ethan’s father is a cultural anthropologist and semiotician, and Ethan’s lack of ‘foreign’ features did not escape his notice (and through him came to my notice).

We should wonder how it happened that Ethan at no time, even momentarily, acquired pronunciations with tap /r/ or close versions of lax vowels, characteristic of both his parents’ English pronunciations. The fact that this holds equally for countless other children suggests that it is principled behaviour that needs to be accounted for in a theory of language convergence. Its generality, perhaps universality, shows that it is not merely idiolectal but sociolectal, and presumably part of sociolinguistic competence. Evidently, Ethan and the others come equipped with an innate filter so that when he hears his mother say ‘cherry’ with tap /r/, he hears it as retroflex and pronounces it that way. When he hears his father say a word like ‘cell’ with the tonic vowel pronounced [e:], he hears the vowel as [E] (the mid front lax vowel), and says it like that (even though ‘sail’ is a possible word).

These filterings evidently take place beneath consciousness. This emerges from another astounding but (to my knowledge) unremarked phenomenon in the dynamics of language convergence. Ethan was well into his school years before he was consciously aware that his parents’ English was foreign-accented. This, too, is typical of children raised in households where the parents are fluent ESL speakers. The innate filter works so efficaciously as to inure the developing native speakers to sounds and forms that would be false steps in the acquisition process as the children go about acquiring the indigenous accent of their peers. Accordingly, instead of learning to ignore the foreign-accent features in their parents’ speech, a presumably tedious process, children simply fail to hear them. Consequently, they fail to recognize their parents’ speech as different from their own.

The innate accent-filter is active in dialect convergence as well as language convergence. Hazen (2002) describes the dynamics of two West Virginia families where the members have different accents as a result of mobility. In one family, the youngest child, a boy, sounds like his classmates in northern West Virginia where the family now live, but his parents’ speech retains southern rural features from their natal region, and the speech of their daughter, born in the south and raised partly there and in the north, has features of both regions. The son, when questioned about his perceptions, maintains that everyone in his family sounds the same. Hazen (2002: 516) says, ‘Perhaps children think their parents sound normal, even if they differ from the surrounding community, which leads to a wider question: Under what circumstances do children remark that the parents’ language seems other than normal?’

In terms of the Ethan Experience, Hazen’s question can be reformulated. The ‘circumstances’ under which the child recognizes parental differences appear to be age-related, and are undoubtedly associated with critical period around puberty, when much of the innate equipment for language acquisition begins shutting down. Before that, the innate accent-filter appears to function as a subconscious guide to phonological acquisition (and perhaps more than phonology), smoothing the process by screening out non-native elements. As an attribute of sociolinguistic competence, it follows that it will be activated by accent variation of all kinds, whether interlanguage or interdialect.

Lesley Milroy suggests that the Ethan Principle may also filter out different languages. Milroy interviewed a man from Holland, Michigan, who reported that his immigrant family had never used any language other than English after coming to the United States and that he himself had always thought he had never spoken any language other than English. However, he had been close to his grandmother, who died when he was four years old, and he has fond memories of conversing with her. Only recently did he discover that she was monolingual in Hungarian. His parents confirmed that he had spoken Hungarian to her. He has no memory of speaking the language although he remembers their conversations (Lesley Milroy, personal communication).

Anecdotal accounts like this one come up almost every time I talk about the Ethan Experience in front of people raised in language-contact settings. My description of Ethan’s response to his domestic linguistic diversity is also anecdotal. We need to discover empirical methods for investigating the Ethan Experience in order to see if its status in sociolinguistic competence can be securely established. Hazen’s careful work with mobile families at transition zones might provide a working model for the way ahead.

Even with the current dim state of our knowledge, the Ethan Experience constitutes a plausible mechanism in allowing and facilitating language change among children and adolescents. Eckert (2000: 42-43) says, ‘Social meaning and identity have to do with people’s forms of engagement in communities of practice and in the world at large.’ In the Ethan Experience, we seem to have discovered a device which allows individuals to disengage themselves from certain eccentric or at least diversionary communities of practice that fall within their worlds, presumably in order to allow them to participate fully in the communities that will play more integral roles in forming their identities.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I am very grateful to my colleague, Ivan Kálmar for sharing his insights with me on what I call the Ethan Experience.