Emily Anderson '14 Studied Acquisition of Standard American English Accents by Jamaicans

July 7, 2014
"Makin Jamaican" food truck on Dorchester Ave in Boston

Emily Anderson ’14 came to Wellesley with a love of learning languages and an interest in the way that human speech can change and develop. Taking Introduction to Linguistics, she discovered the field of cognitive and linguistic sciences. She found she was passionate about studying the patterns of language and decided to major in the field. During her senior year, she worked on a senior thesis project analyzing the accent acquisition of Jamaican immigrants to the United States.

“When I first started thinking about doing a thesis,” says Anderson, “I knew that I wanted to pursue a topic related to accents largely because of my own fascination with them.” Anderson also knew she wanted to work on the thesis with her advisor, Wellesley Faculty Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences Angela Carpenter. “When we met and first discussed ideas, she suggested for me to look into Jamaican Creole,” Anderson recalls. “Once I did, I became particularly interested in the way that variations in Jamaican Creole are related to social factors, as well as how the language changes with exposure to different languages. We started working with the topic more, and then it all fell into place!”

When individuals immigrate to another country, Anderson explains, they are frequently exposed to a new linguistic environment. As a result of this exposure, individuals often modify their personal accent to reflect the linguistic environment. This phenomenon of accent acquisition occurs frequently in an increasingly multicultural world, but has not been widely researched. Jamaican Creole, known also as Patwa, is spoken to some extent by the majority of Jamaicans and has a close linguistic relationship with Standard American English (referred to SAE). Through oral and written interviews with six Jamaican immigrants living in the United States, Anderson examined the accent acquisition of SAE from Patwa.

She hypothesized that her participants’ acquisition of a SAE accent would correlate to their length of residency in the United States, among other factors. After months of research and analysis, she found evidence that supported that all participants acquired the SAE accent to some extent, but no participant had either fully adapted all phonological features of SAE or kept all the phonological features of the original Patwa accent. “I argue for a plateau effect of acquisition wherein participants undergo an initial period of accent acquisition, which then levels out to an incomplete acquisition of SAE,” Anderson explained. “After accents are deemed acceptable by SAE standards, further accent acquisition is not required.”

The thesis process was both challenging and rewarding. “While I was expecting the thesis process to be difficult, I was surprised by the several ways it made me expand my own comfort zone,” Anderson says. “Independently recruiting participants by flyer, phone, and email was a new challenge for me, as well as driving into Boston to meet with them!” Anderson also learned how to balance her academic responsibilities with other parts of her life, a learning process she will take with her as she begins a new job with a Boston-based technology and management consulting company. “I had to learn how to balance my time and focus on the current task,” she says. “It was difficult to figure out how to balance my responsibilities, and [time-management] is definitely a skill that requires continuous development and attention. I am glad, though, that I am now more aware of the need for balance.”