University researchers study bilingualism in Argentina from a linguistic and sociocultural perspective

Researchers discuss findings from different disciplines as part of their project to better understand bicultural communities.

Researchers discuss findings from different disciplines as part of their project to better understand bicultural communities. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Lorenzo García-Amaya

 

Monday, June 12, 2017 - 10:33pm

A research project conducted through the University of Michigan is bringing together linguists and cultural analysts to better understand bicultural communities.

The project, titled “Argentine Afrikaners: Interrogating Hybridity in a Unique Diasporic Community,” looks at a bilingual community in Patagonia, Argentina to better understand cultural and linguistic relations between Afrikaans, a language spoken in South Africa, and Argentinian Spanish, a language spoken in South America, communities. 

It is one of three projects that received proposal development grants for research from the Humanities Collaboratory in February.

Overseen by the provost and the Institute for the Humanities, the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory serves as a resource for research in the humanities. It promotes team-based work, as well as communication of research and humanities scholars.

For May and June, the grant provides funding to the team, fostering collaboration between its linguists and socio-cultural team members — anthropologists and religious historians, among them — to analyze their data and share ideas.

Nicholas Henriksen, an assistant professor of spanish linguistics, is the principal investigator on the project. He described the grant’s mission to bring together different perspectives.

“One of the stipulations of the grant is that all of the collaborators meet and talk and bring together ideas from different disciplines,” he said. “By listening to people who work in different disciplines, with different backgrounds, one nice advantage is we’ve been able to understand the community from different perspectives, which we wouldn’t have done if we were just working on this independently.”

In general, the linguists observe the speech patterns of the bilingual speakers.

“We’re exploring their hybrid speech patterns,” he said. “When a bilingual speaker speaks, sometimes there will be an influence from one of his or her two languages when they speak the second language.” 

Henriksen said typically linguists only look for speech patterns and concentrate on sounds, as opposed to analyzing content.

Other colleagues on the project are experts in history and cultural practices. According to Henriksen, they are helping to analyze the community based on such practices and beliefs — religious, racial and ethnic differences, among others. 

“The two sides of the team kind of work together to study our speech community and its hybrid practices,” he said. “On the one hand, the linguists come together; on the other hand, the social-cultural members come together. We are able to portray a picture of these speakers, of our speech community, because of the hybridity, but not just looking at one or the other —  bringing both of those together.”

Lorenzo García-Amaya, who is also an assistant professor of spanish linguistics, is a researcher on the project. He works primarily with speech production of second-language learners.

The linguists, he explained, use a software to help analyze the speech. Several undergraduate students also help to analyze recordings of interviews with the speakers from Argentina in both Afrikaans and Spanish.

García-Amaya said the collaboration has been extremely helpful. He said it was interesting how the socio-cultural members were quick to pick up on certain cues — hesitations, pauses and interruptions — when the speakers discussed issues of race and indigeneity, among others, as these topics might be sensitive to some.

García-Amaya explained linguists themselves may not track these occurrences on their own, as they would normally conduct a more quantitative study measuring frequency.

“In a personal experience, it is something that is wonderful — I have been able to learn from them...” he said. “It has been a surprising aspect of the collaboratory — how much this informs the type of analysis that we conduct in our lab.”

The community of interest consists of approximately 40 bilingual individuals — 20 of whom were interviewed for the project — who are descendents of immigrants who arrived in Argentina around 1902. These immigrants maintained Calvinist beliefs, coming from the Dutch Reformed Church. The interviewed group speaks both Afrikaans and Spanish — Afrikaans was the exclusive language until the 1950s — though their children likely only speak Spanish, as it became dominant later on. There were 15 interviewees for the project who spoke only Spanish.

Originally, Henriksen explained, the group wanted to focus on religious ideology and differences. Many speakers had a predominantly Calvinist upbringing but later were influenced by Argentine Catholicism.  

However, Henriksen said as the team has been looking over data thus far, they have noticed issues related to race, ethnicity and indigeneity becoming more prominent. 

“The interplay between European cultures, Afrikaan cultures and South American indigenous cultures is something that we as linguists were not prepared to talk about,” he said. “As we’ve been analyzing the data over the past six weeks, we’ve realized our cultural studies collaborators have given us a framework from which to understand how race and ethnicity is viewed in this community.”

The project itself consists of 17 researchers — six faculty members, two graduate students and nine undergraduates or recent graduates.

Henriksen said peer mentoring has contribtued greatly to the project, as it consists of students from different skill levels.   

"We have a nice protocol where we have mentoring that goes on," he said. "The graduate students mentor advanced undergraduate students. We have undergradates who are seniors, for example, and then they also mentor more novice undergraduates...The idea is that the faculty are not just sharing ideas amongst themselves, they're also sharing research protocols and valuable research skills with the whole array of students." 

LSA alum Libby Garno is among the student researchers. She works on phonetic analysis for glides in Afrikaans data and oversees fluency analysis for the Spanish data.

In a message to the Daily, Garno echoed Henriksen's statement about the importance of peer mentoring on the project, explaining she learned a lot from more advanced researchers. 

“I've learned a lot about the statistical process that accompanies the actual data analysis,” she wrote. “It is beneficial to us students/former students to have those experienced in research guiding us through the process and teaching as they go, instead of passing the work off to someone else. I also think our team is really well organized and communicates effectively, so I think I will definitely adopt some of those management techniques that I have witnessed them using.”

Furthermore, referencing the topics of race that arose in the data, Garno also noted how interdisciplinary collaboration contributed to the findings. 

“We had an instance where the sociocultural analysis of the project was tagging comments of race, and we noticed that their speech was significantly more disfluent around these topics,” she wrote. “I don't know if we would have noticed that without the collaboration with the other area of the study, and now our research has taken a really interesting turn because of it.”