As some of you may know, the subject of linguistic receptivity is something I’ve been working on for several months now, but it’s somehow been a slippery concept to define & measure. In fact, I came up with the appellation last spring with the help of my research advisor. First of all, it’s not something that’s been heavily studied to begin with. In a sort of dictionary entry blurb, I’ve been calling it openness to linguistic variation and change. You could also consider it one’s acceptance of linguistic diversity & recognition of linguistic & sociolinguistic facts. But what does this really mean and how can this scalar construct be measured?
I have some experience working in an evolutionary psychology & individual differences lab at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. An on-going project of ours has been to assess & compare scientific literacy in the student body across a variety of social variables including sex, major field of study, religion, cohort, & so on. Anyway, I think that there are definite parallels between trying to measure scientific literacy & trying to measure linguistic receptivity. Why?
The most obvious parallel is the part about recognizing linguistic & sociolinguistic facts. Being scientifically literate is doing the same but with respect to scientific facts. Beyond all reasonable doubt, the Earth goes around the sun. This is as close to a fact as we can practically expect. Languages aren’t static; they evolve over time. Again, we have enough corroborative evidence to call this fact.
Fortunately for psychologist Megan, nothing present on our scientific literacy metric is considered by mainstream science as anything but fact. However, in tackling this concept of linguistic receptivity, I am face to face with a huge gray area. Many of the items on the metric elicit attitudes and opinions or require making value judgments about statements like, “Some people are too lazy to speak proper English” and “I like hearing other dialects,” etc. It’s when attitudes toward language or speakers come into play that things become tricky.
But after running a pilot study last semester to test our formative ideas about linguistic receptivity, my advisor & I have found some interesting things. As we’ve defined and measured linguistic receptivity, we know that those who are more open to linguistic diversity & change give more favorable judgments of grammaticality to non-standard constructions in English. The non-standard feature we used in our pilot study was of course I’ma, meaning I am going to. In fact, our results showed that 31% of the variance in scores of linguistic receptivity explained grammaticality judgments of I’ma.
On the flipside of things, a person’s degree of linguistic receptivity had no relationship to judgments of grammaticality on the standard form, going to, which served as a sort of control variable. We wouldn’t expect people to rate going to differentially. That is, people rated sentences containing going to as equally correct across levels of linguistic receptivity. This means that a person’s openness to linguistic diversity really does have something to do with how they judge non-standard forms.
Our pilot study carries some important implications, despite its limited scope – particularly because there has so far been very little precedence for this avenue of research. The fact is that linguistic discrimination is a problem. It happens, it can happen subconsciously, & it has significant & detrimental effects to its victims. If we can find ways to encourage positive attitudes toward linguistic diversity, it’s possible that educational programs could eliminate this problem.
Because this is an ongoing investigation of mine, I would be greatly appreciative of feedback!
Megan L. Risdal