PIRE core-faculty Rena Torres Cacoullos presents at the International Conference of Language Variation in Europe (ICLaVE).
A long-standing issue in bilingualism research is the interaction between speakers’ linguistic systems, most clearly evidenced in contexts of code-switching. Here, we propose to use priming as a measure of degree of association between bilinguals’ two grammars, appealing to constructions as units of grammar.
Structural priming, whereby the use of one variant favors subsequent use of that same variant over alternatives, is a robust factor in language-internal variation and also applies across languages (cf., Gries & Kootstra 2017). In language-internal variation, priming can be used to assess the relationships between constructions. For example, working (vs. workin’) is primed by kicking but not by morning (Tamminga 2016). In a seeming parallel, priming across languages has been taken to support the conjecture that bilinguals have a “shared syntax”, in which parallel grammatical structures “are represented once” (Hartsuiker et al. 2004: 409).
To examine this, we turn to the spontaneous speech of a bilingual community in northern New Mexico, USA, where multi-word code-switches are copious. Comparisons with monolingual English and Spanish benchmarks on a range of linguistic variables indicate maintenance of distinct grammars in this language contact situation (e.g., word order (Benevento & Dietrich 2015), mood choice (LaCasse 2018), complementizer use (Steuck & Torres Cacoullos To Appear)). For variable subject expression as well, these bilingual speakers maintain the same probabilistic constraints as speakers of monolingual varieties, such as accessibility, verb class and person effects. Of most interest here is coreferential subject priming, the tendency to repeat the form (pronoun vs. unexpressed) of the previous mention of the same subject. Notably, coreferential subject priming occurs both within Spanish and across languages, such that, in code-switching, English pronouns prime Spanish pronouns (1). This cross-language priming provides evidence that Spanish and English pronouns are associated for these bilingual speakers.
I was a statistician.
yo fui a todos los basketball games.
but I did all the stats.
‘I was a statistician.
I went to all the basketball games.
but I did all the stats.’
However, we also observe differential priming. Within Spanish, cognition verb constructions (e.g., (yo) creo ‘(I) think’) are less susceptible to coreferential subject priming than other [(pronoun) + verb] instances, evidence of autonomy from the more general construction (Bybee 2010). Similarly, the priming effect from English to Spanish is weaker than that from Spanish to Spanish. The differential strength of within- vs. cross-language priming serves as a gauge of the associations between the structures of the two languages in contact, suggesting a weaker association between Spanish [(pronoun) + verb] and English [(pronoun) + verb] constructions than between two instances that share the same language. This in turn suggests that the two grammars in contact are interconnected, but not conflated, highlighting the possibility for the maintenance of distinct grammars: while variant forms are primed across languages in contact, their linguistic conditioning remains intact.
Citation: Travis, C. E. & Torres Cacoullos, R. (2019, June). Bilingual interconnections: Priming as a measure of strength of associations. In International Conference on Language Variation in Europe (ICLaVE) 10. Presentation conducted at Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden/Ljouwert, Netherlands.