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December 07, 2012 3:35 PM Talkin’ ‘Bout College

By Daniel Luzer

According to research published in Language Variation and Change, high school students change their speech patterns based on their college ambitions.

The study, by Michigan State University Assistant Professor of Linguistics Suzanne Evans Wagner, indicated that students who wished to attend good colleges (national research institutions) were more likely to pronounce the “ing” at the end of the present participle forms of verbs, like running, studying, eating, etc. Students with lower college ambitions (community colleges or regional schools) were more likely use the nonstandard “runnin” and “studyin,” and “eatin.” According to the study:

This study provides real-time support for the hypothesis, previously inferred from apparent time studies, that stable sociolinguistic variables are age-graded. Stable variables have been shown to exhibit a curvilinear pattern with age in which adolescents use nonstandard variants at a higher rate than adults do. An analysis of the morphophonological variable (ing) was carried out using recordings and ethnographic observations of 13 young American women during and after their final years of high school. The results indicate that the degree of retreat from nonstandard variants is socially differentiated, in line with apparent time findings. Future enrollment in a locally oriented college, and alignment to a local ethnic network (Irish or Italian)—not social class—were the predictors of retention in high school.

Wow, talk about nonstandard English….

While with a sample size of only 13 it’s perhaps a little inappropriate to generalize too much from this, it’s hardly surprising. People with more ambitious college plans speak better.

According to an interview one journalist conducted with Wagner, the professor explained ,

It seems as if in high school, students who want to go to a good college are the ones who early on begin to dial back their use of nonstandard language. And the ones who have no aspirations to leave their local community, or who have no particular aspirations to raise their social class, are the people who have no obvious social incentives to change the way they speak.

Well yes, though it also seems likely that high school students who attended or planned to attend national research institutions just speak better because they’re smarter and better students.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer