Rising Stars: Meet Sean Lang!

Dear Readers,

This year we will be continuing our Rising Stars Series where we feature up and coming linguists ranging from impactful undergraduates to prolific PhD candidates. These rising stars have been nominated by their mentors for their exceptional interest in linguistics and eager participation in the global community of language researchers.

Today we share with you the cutting-edge work of Sean Lang. He is a Senior at the University of Michigan where he is a double major in Spanish and Neuroscience. He is currently a member of the University of Michigan Speech Lab where he is working on analyzing a corpus of data from the Afrikaans-Argentine bilingual community that resides in Patagonia, Argentina. His work has ramifications for the Afrikaans language as a whole since the last group of Afrikaans-Spanish bilingual speakers resides in Patagonia, thus making the particular language variety an endangered one. He has received very high praise from his mentors and his work quality is said to be among that of the top undergraduates ever to work in the lab. He has even been interviewed by NPR! While doing all of this great work, Sean has also still found the time to be a mentor and thesis advisor to younger students. And with that… we introduce Sean’s work!

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Between 1902 and 1906, approximately 600 Afrikaans speakers migrated to Chubut Province, Argentina from South Africa. Over the course of the 20th century, the community gradually shifted from Afrikaans-dominant to Spanish-dominant. The year 1954 marks the first record of a church service held in Spanish, though Afrikaans was still the dominant language through the 1960s. In May of 2014, a team of University of Michigan faculty was sent on a fieldwork trip to visit the community and interview its members, a subset of whom were (indeed, still are) Afrikaans-Spanish bilinguals.

Anthropologically and linguistically speaking, this community presents as a unique case, especially the oldest living generation, individuals who learned Afrikaans as a first language (L1) and later, when they entered school, began learning Spanish as a second language (L2). Now, though, as these speakers enter their 70s and 80s, they have been dominant speakers of Spanish (over Afrikaans) for the last 50 years or more, to such a degree that many of them have suffered partial attrition of their L1 Afrikaans.

Studying the many facets of the individuals living in the community has become an active collaboration between historians, anthropologists, and linguists. Specifically, though, my work over the past year has focused on the cross-language influence between the L1 Afrikaans and L2 Spanish of these Argentine bilinguals, with attention to filled pauses in particular. Past studies of the influence between bilinguals’ languages has shown, as we might intuit, an influence of an L1 on an L2. However, there also exists a body of research evidencing the influence of an L2 on an L1, also suggesting that this influence is greater in cases of increased exposure to and proficiency in the L2. We elected to focus on filled pauses because, as discourse byproducts of lexical retrieval and syntactic planning, they constitute an informative feature through which to understand second-language fluency.

An analysis of over 3,000 filled pauses produced by the Afrikaans-Spanish bilinguals, Afrikaans monolinguals, and Spanish monolinguals suggests that filled pauses are multi-faceted, and that their various facets may pattern independently. For example, Spanish monolinguals and the bilinguals while speaking Spanish produced three types of filled pauses: vowel-only (e.g., “uh”, “eh”), vowel followed by nasal consonant (e.g., “um”, “em”), and nasal consonant-only (e.g., “mm”). Meanwhile, Afrikaans monolinguals and bilinguals while speaking Afrikaans only produced two types: vowel-only and vowel followed by nasal consonant. Essentially, that the bilinguals are target-like in their filled pause “inventories” suggests a lack of influence between languages.

However, gradient analyses of the formants, F1 and F2, in Praat of the vocalic segments of filled pauses showed evidence of robust bidirectional influence between the languages of the bilinguals. The two monolingual groups fell on extreme ends of the continuum, while bilinguals occupied an intermediate space between the two. The vowel durations of the filled pauses also suggested bidirectional influence, while the nasal consonant durations suggested unidirectional influence of the L1 Afrikaans on the L2 Spanish.

All taken together, these results suggest that filled pauses are multifaceted. Furthermore, those facets are capable of patterning independently, which is analogous to what occurs with “regular” lexical items, suggesting that filled pauses belong to the same grammar as those lexical items.

As a final note, the study described above constituted my undergraduate honors thesis, which has provided me with great challenges, fulfillment, and myriad opportunities to grow over the last eight months. Following my graduation (May 2019), I will be flying to Guatemala to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years, after which I plan to apply to PhD programs.

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