The language of change

Date published: 2008-07-22 2:34:34 PM

Shana Poplack, Canada’s leading sociolinguist and a world authority on the effects of bilingualism, has spent more than 20 years studying the disconnect between society’s stereotypes about language change and language loss, and the way people actually speak.

The first to scientifically study the universal strategies of borrowing among languages and switching between them, Poplack has generated fresh knowledge about language contact. Do these processes lead to the deterioration of French and English in Canada, as many people fear? Working in bilingual communities, she and the team of researchers at her University of Ottawa Sociolinguistics Laboratory recorded and analyzed thousands of hours of everyday speech. They discovered that switching between languages in conversation is a skill rather than a defect, and that borrowed words cannot alter the grammatical structure of the borrowing language. And neither practice leads to language change or deterioration.

Shana Poplack, LinguistIcs, University of Ottawa