Book Examines Language Development Among African American Youth

A book documenting the results of a groundbreaking 20-year study led by Walt Wolfram, the William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor in the department of English at North Carolina State University, has won the award for book of the year from the Linguistic Society of America.

The book, titled African American Language: Language Development from Infancy to Adulthood, (Cambridge University Press, 2020) received the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America for 2022. The award committee cited the book for making “a remarkable and unique contribution to the study of African American language, contributing substantially to our understanding of how children construct identity, negotiate status and relationships, and transition across life stages by means of and as represented by their language.”

The pioneering study started tracking the linguistic development of 88 African American children when they were 6-12 months old. The researchers followed the children for the next 20 years, evaluating them every one to two years.

The researchers used an index called the Dialect Density Measure (DDM) to quantify how much African American dialect a child used when speaking. They began measuring each child’s DDM starting at age 3, and they tracked how each speaker’s dialect usage changed over time.

“We found an ebb-and-flow pattern,” Dr. Wolfram says. “Kids typically entered school with a high DDM score, using lots of dialect. Over the next four years they tend to lose a lot of that. In grades six and eight they start gaining it again, because now they’re entering the peer-group years, when fitting in with your peers is so important. Then in grade 10 they go in one of two directions: if they’re going to a predominantly White school and plan to go to college, DDM declines; if not, it stays steady.”

Dr. Wolfram and the study’s co-authors — all of whom are former graduate  students of his at North Carolina State — will receive their award during a special ceremony at the 2022 annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Washington D.C. in January.

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