sociolinguistics laboratory

Norms and variation in French:  the competing roles of school, community and ideology.

Principal Investigator: Shana Poplack
Co-Investigator: Johanne S. Bourdages

Research Grant #410-2005-2108 [2005-2008]

Though French is among the most highly codified of languages, non-standard grammatical forms continue to abound in the spoken vernaculars of most speakers. Most of these have been recognized -- and censured -- by the prescriptive enterprise over centuries of grammatical tradition. Not only have these efforts been largely unsuccessful in eradicating them, many of the offending forms are involved in vigorous change in progress. As a result, for the youth of today, non-standard or colloquial variants are basically the norms of usage in many areas of the grammar.

Our objective in the proposed research is to investigate the role of the school in abetting or impeding the progression of such forms in Quebec. With the advent of the “communicative” approach to language teaching, the onus is increasingly on the teacher to implicitly transmit standard French (as opposed to teaching it explicitly). In order to contextualize the students’ performance, it is thus of primordial importance to understand the constitution of the teacher’s input. Our approach is comparative, confronting norms that are used in actual production with those that are prescribed.

In terms of production, we characterize and compare teacher speech (here defined as the spontaneous speech of teachers) with student speech, both within and outside of the classroom. We contextualize both varieties by situating them with regard to the community usage norm.

In terms of prescription, through analysis of school curricula and pedagogical grammars, we identify the standard variants of a series of diagnostic sociolinguistic variables, and their prescribed contexts of use. We focus on grammatical phenomena related to the tense/mood/aspect system, whose variable behavior is not only salient in the community, but has been well-documented, both synchronically and diachronically. Finally, making use of the variationist framework, and the comparative methods pioneered and successfully applied by the principal investigator to other areas of language variation and change, we compare prescribed use with actual usage in each of these conditions. This will enable us to assess where teachers and students are situated with respect to two extremes of the stylistic continuum. The expectation of progressive educators (and the Quebec language arts curriculum) is that students learn to manipulate variant forms in stylistically appropriate ways. Our comparative research will enable us to determine the extent to which that goal is being met.

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