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Sociophonetic variation in English /l/ in the child-directed speech of English-Malay bilinguals

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Sim, JH 


Three realisations of syllable-final /l/ have been described in previous work on Singapore English: vocalised-l (or deleted-l in some phonetic contexts; the local norms), dark-l (a form associated with the exonormative standards), and clear-l (a Malay-derived phonetic trait observed in the speech of some English-Malay bilinguals). This study examined whether, how and why Singaporean English-Malay bilinguals vary their English /l/ in their child-directed speech, and whether the phonetic variation, if any, could be socially-conditioned. The laterals in the English child-directed speech of ten father-mother dyads with their preschoolers were analysed using auditory and acoustic methods. All participants were simultaneous or early English-Malay bilinguals. The findings revealed that in informal contexts, both mothers and fathers used a relatively clearer /l/ in all syllable positions. Contrastingly, in formal contexts that involved teaching and learning, the coda laterals of mothers were significantly darker, thereby exhibiting positional contrast between onset and coda laterals. They also produced significantly more vocalised-l in these contexts. Fathers, however, did not show differentiation in the darkness of the laterals, nor did their laterals show significant positional differences in formal contexts, although some fathers of younger children did produce more vocalised-l than they did in informal contexts. The variation observed was discussed by exploring the potential socio-indexical meanings of these variants of /l/ within the context of variationist accounts of Singapore English and by drawing parallels with socially-conditioned variation in bilectal monolinguals and ethnolect speakers. Differences between maternal and paternal CDS patterns could be attributed to gender roles and cultural expectations of mothers’ dominant role in child- rearing, and may also be a result of and enabled by Malay women’s potentially more complex repertoire range.



Socio-indexical, Ethnicity, Repertoire, Lateral, Language contact, New English, Gender

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Journal of Phonetics

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Elsevier BV
This work was supported by the fieldwork grants provided by Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics and Jesus College, University of Cambridge; and the PhD funding provided by National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.