The project Modeling the Linguistic Consequences of Digital Language Contact (Greining á málfræðilegum afleiðingum stafræns málsambýlis) aims to investigate and model the linguistic consequences of digital language contact, using the rise of English in the Icelandic language community as a test case. In recent years it has often been claimed that Icelandic is losing ground to the globally dominant English, which has penetrated Icelandic society through the rapid rise of interactive technology. The main empirical goal of the project will be to construct a nationwide profile of the distribution and nature of English and Icelandic input in the Icelandic language community and the differences in linguistic knowledge which arise as a result of such novel types of intense encounters with English.
The main theoretical impact of the project will be to integrate sociological factors and bilingualism into the evolving field of models which derive the linguistic knowledge of speakers from the quantified distribution of input in acquisition and hypothesized constraints on possible languages. We will extend Yang’s (2002) Variational Model (VM) of Language Acquisition. Variational, as opposed to transformational learning mechanisms (e.g. Chomsky 1965; Wexler & Culicover 1980; Berwick 1985; Hyams 1986), are well equipped for capturing gradual emergence of properties throughout the learning period and across generations of learners (see Yang 2002:15-24); thus the VM is an excellent theoretical basis for our project.
In times of the digital revolution and globalization, we witness a digital minoritization of majority languages, such as Icelandic. Icelandic is a majority language in the sense that it is the native language of the majority of citizens in a nation-state, and it has legal status as the official language of that state. We use the term ‘digital minoritization’ to refer to a development where certain properties of majority languages disappear, and characteristics of minority languages emerge, due to changes in society and technological advances even if some of the most obvious indicators for language vitality and endangerment do not clearly signal imminent language death (cf. also Deumert 2014).
Many languages are currently losing ground to the globally dominant English even though they fulfill all requisites for language vitality according to criteria such as the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale, EGIDS, (Lewis & Simons 2010) and the UNESCO Language Vitality and Endangerment scales (UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages 2003, 2011). It has been claimed that only about 5% of the world’s languages will survive the digital age (Kornai 2013), and that at least 21 of Europe’s official languages are in danger of ‘digital extinction’ (see Rehm and Uzkoreit 2012; Rögnvaldsson et al. 2012). Exposure to increased amounts of English in new domains and media results in digital minoritization of these languages.
Investigations on the use of English in Icelandic society in the 21st century indicate substantial exposure to English in domains such as recreation, media, commerce, and academia. For instance, according to a large study carried out in 2002, 50% of Icelanders claimed to speak, read or write in English daily or almost daily, and 25% claimed to use English 1-4 times per week (Kristiansen & Vikør 2006:215). Exposure to English is positively correlated with levels of education and income and negatively correlated with age (Árnason 2006; Dofradóttir et al. 2010). In addition to ‘parallel’ use of English and the national language in a number of traditional domains, new technology increases exposure to English and the exposure is more interactive and intense than before, particularly among children and adolescents.
The perceived effect of these altered conditions is much discussed in popular media. Commentators have, for instance, expressed doubts about whether Icelandic will exist in 2100, and exchanged anecdotes about Icelandic children and youths having entire conversations in English (e.g. Helgason 2014). As to linguistic forms, folk-linguistic representations of new-media language practices (e.g. of Icelandic adolescents) are very much in the same vein as has been observed in other speech communities, i.e. adults’ complaints about the perceived deterioration of the language. While the distinctiveness of new media language (e.g., in instant messaging), and its implications for changing language standards, are often subject to exaggeration (cf. Thurlow 2007), more robust evidence is needed to clarify the extent to which such concerns are legitimate (cf. Androutsopoulos 2011:148,156).
To sum up: the precise nature of the development that we referred to as digital minoritization remains understudied. What does it mean, for example, if access to a modern technology, like speech recognition, hinges on abandoning the use of the native language in parts of daily life? Icelandic offers an ideal test case for the effect of this novel type of contact with English, because it is a majority language with official status in a nation-state. Icelandic is used in government documents and compulsory national-level education and it also has a long literary tradition. Therefore, minoritization of Icelandic cannot be attributed to a politically unfavorable environment.
Furthermore, the population of Iceland is only 330,000 and the country is geographically isolated. Throughout its history Iceland has been a homogeneous society, both sociologically and linguistically, even though immigration rates have grown in the last few years. As of January 1, 2015, immigrants (1st and 2nd generation) constituted around 9,4% of the population, as opposed to 2,1% in 1996 (Statistics Iceland). The relative homogeneity and the small size of the population facilitate the study of nationwide effects and simplify the control of affecting variables.
The study of the digital minoritization of Icelandic has implications for theories on language acquisition and change, language vitality, and lifespan change in individuals. The goals of the project are divided into these three interconnected areas:
- Language acquisition and change: The project will quantify and classify the distribution of Icelandic and English input in the Icelandic language community. The data will be used to model the relationship between input and linguistic knowledge of individual speakers across age and social groups and domains of language, such as vocabulary and grammar. Established linguistic variables from the literature will be used to study whether and how internally arising change correlates with linguistic change due to external digital contact.
- Language vitality: The project will develop a set of tools for evaluating language vitality in a community where a language concedes domains due to the proliferation and the speeding up of communication technologies and the resultant proliferation of technologically mediated communication, rather than the local political environment. We will compare and contrast the traditional notion of a minority language with the effects of digital minoritization and develop a new language vitality index to measure the impact of contact with English via new domains and media.
- Lifespan change and bilingualism: The project will aim to characterize the effect of digital contact on the linguistic competence and language practices by young and older children, adolescents, and adults. Thus, the project will study the impact of novel types of English input on different age groups of speakers, for example with respect to the often assumed critical period for language acquisition (Lenneberg 1967; DeKeyser & Larson-Hall 2005) and the development of bilingualism, which can be the first step in language death (Romaine 2013). Young speakers’ language proficiency will be examined with a special focus on whether their use of English is moving from receptive knowledge to more productive uses.
In recent work, steps have been taken towards predictive models of language acquisition which are rooted in the quantitative distribution of input data and which draw on theories about constraints on possible human languages (Yang 2002, and references there). The resulting models have been applied fruitfully to various case studies of linguistic variation and change carried out by researchers involved in the current project (e.g. Heycock & Wallenberg 2013; Ingason et al. 2013) and they provide new avenues for precise formulation and falsifiability in the analysis of language acquisition and change. However, as Yang (2002: 143-144) notes, a model like his Variational Model (VM) of Language Acquisition does not consider sociological forces, an idealization which is only justified in cases where certain components of language change can be isolated from their social context.
A central original theoretical impact of the project will be to extend the VM to acquisition in an environment where an individual’s interactions with certain social spaces shape her resulting linguistic knowledge. We will build a profile of the input in speakers’ social environment through interviews and surveys, and include appropriate background information about their past.
The project will test the hypothesis that the status of a native language and global English in the linguistic repertoire of a speaker is primarily a mechanical reflex of the distribution of input in a given type of social environment. The hypothesis will be tested against the alternative hypothesis that changes in the status of the two languages are primarily driven by other factors, such as the attitudes of the speakers involved, taking into account potential links between different types of effects. The original VM analyzes the learning of two variants in a given generation in terms of a competition between two grammatical systems. We will adapt this approach to learning to a situation where there are two distinct languages in the input and a partial interference between them. The VM is an appropriate basis for our project because variational learning accommodates gradual emergence of properties across the learning period and across generations of learners.
We will assess how intensity of digital contact correlates with speakers’ competence in English as well as the Icelandic of previous generations. Potential effects include loss of native elements and adoption of English elements, in vocabulary, grammatical structure or phonology. Existing patterns are most likely to be affected in cases where a given pattern is already marginal or subject to variable usage and we will examine such cases in the project. We will include variables across vocabulary, grammar and phonology in order to allow a comparison across these domains to determine whether deep properties of Icelandic grammar, like the verb second constraint (see e.g. Thráinsson 2007:40-45 and references there), are affected by digital contact or whether the effects are primarily at the surface, as in the vocabulary. The project will furthermore evaluate the strength of the effect of digital contact with respect to the intensity of different types of English input. Highly interactive uses of English in smartphones and computer games are likely to provide more intense contact than passive use in older technologies, like radio and television. The profile of our participants will take this into account.
The implementation of the project will include a detailed profile of a stratified random sample of 400 speakers of Icelandic (the strata will consist of different age groups) who will be interviewed and asked to participate in experiments. The study will evaluate the input they are exposed to and selected aspects of their linguistic knowledge. Participants’ language skills in both Icelandic and English will be evaluated using a variety of test batteries (standardized tests such as TOLD, PPVT and controlled language samples) traditionally used for speech-language pathology studies, as well as judgment tasks for grammatical acceptability. The amount of exposure to each language, as well as speakers’ self-evaluation of their language skills, will be assessed with new questionnaires inspired by assessment tools developed for the study of bilingual language exposure (e.g. Thordardottir 2011; Thordardottir et al. 2006). One of the aims of the project is to adapt these metrics to the evaluation of English as an international language in contrast with the respective majority language. An online survey will complement the detailed profile constructed in these interviews in order to assess the same variables within a much larger cohort of participants.
Main theoretical, empirical and methodological goals of the project:
- Extending Yang’s (2002) Variational Model of language acquisition to take into account the ways in which the composition of a digitally bilingual social environment shapes the linguistic knowledge of speakers.
- Investigating to what extent digital minoritization is transferred to the native competence through loss of native elements and/or adaptation of elements from English, or if it leads to bilingualism which may be the first step in language death.
- Study how the data collected in the project fit with current ideas about the age span for first language acquisition and linguistic change across a speaker’s lifespan.
- Developing an index of language vitality which is designed for measuring effects of digital minoritization, in contrast to a canonical minority language status.
- Constructing a nationwide profile of the amount and intensity of Icelandic and English input across different age groups and the social spaces which make up most of the Icelandic language community.
- Examining to what extent the use of English among children and adolescents might be changing from receptive to productive use, indicating the establishment of bilingualism.
- Measuring the effects which a given quantity and intensity of English input have on selected aspects of an Icelandic speaker’s linguistic knowledge.
- Adapting methods from speech pathology, theoretical linguistics and the study of bilingualism to the evaluation of the effects of digital contact.
- Combining carefully constructed interview data with a large online survey for the purpose of reaching a substantial proportion of the Icelandic language community, as well as for evaluating the reliability of online surveys in this type of research.
In addition to Icelandic being an appropriate empirical test case for the study of digital minoritization, the status of present day Icelandic with respect to English is also an important topic due to the cultural importance of the language as one of the cornerstones of Icelandic national identity. Concerns about the future of the language and its ability to coexist with global English have been brought up a number of times recently in the media (see above) and the nature of the reaction across society indicates that Icelanders are not indifferent to the perceived weakened status of their native language. We do not know at this time whether Icelandic is already taking early steps towards digital language death but the results of the project will without doubt contribute to a more informed discussion about the future of Icelandic and relevant maintenance strategies. It is a political question whether and to what extent Icelandic should be digitally revitalized but any meaningful debate on the issue will require research along the lines of our project in order to have at its disposal relevant facts about the ongoing digital minoritization of the language, which can then be interpreted according to current theories and models of language change, bilingualism, language death, etc.
Although Icelandic is the target of this project, the results will provide a framework and guidelines to assess digital minoritization of other languages which, like Icelandic, coexist with English. The theoretical and methodological advances which will result from the project will be generalizable to any language and therefore the potential impact of this work is not limited to Icelandic. Thus, in addition to providing important empirical findings in the context of Icelandic, the project has implications which are of general importance. Iceland is large enough to have a vibrant community of native speakers, yet it is also small enough to observe fine-grained nationwide empirical patterns. We believe that Icelandic is the ideal test case for studying digital contact with English in detail. The team of researchers behind this project brings the right combination of expertise to the project. The project will offer invaluable empirical findings, put them in the context of current theoretical issues and develop valuable new methodologies, all of which have the potential to have general implications for the language sciences.
Present state of knowledge in the field
The three areas on which the project focuses are (i) the role of input in language acquisition and the effect, if any, of digital minoritization on linguistic change, (ii) language vitality under digital minoritization, and (iii) the effect of digital contact on speakers of different ages, in particular with respect to lifespan change and bilingualism.
Language acquisition and change; the role of the input
“The more you hear a language, the better you learn it” (Paradis & Grüter 2014:1). Experience is assumed to guide acquisition to some extent whether we assume an input-driven approach to language acquisition, as in cognitive linguistics and usage-based theories, or a knowledge-driven approach, which makes specific assumptions about innate constraints on possible languages as in generative theories of Universal Grammar (e.g. Lidz & Gagliardi 2015:334). Also, input and experience affect both monolingual and bilingual children’s language development, with bilingual acquisition being influenced even more by input factors than monolingual acquisition (e.g. Paradis & Grüter 2014:11). Thus, input shapes linguistic knowledge, although the relationship between language input and outcomes is far from simple. A strong correlation is found between the rate of time spent interacting in a language and the rate of vocabulary acquired, both in first and second language acquisition (Hart & Risley 1995; 1999; Pearson et al. 1997). Thus, the role of input in receptive and expressive vocabulary acquisition seems uncontested (e.g. Thordardottir 2011; Pearson & Amaral 2014). It is less clear to which extent different aspects of grammatical knowledge depend on input (e.g. Thordardottir 2014; Unsworth 2014). Also in bilingual development, there is no firm agreement about the exact exposure levels and age span required for the successful acquisition of a language.
It is clear that many variables affect bilingual and second language acquisition which is subject to even more input variation than monolingual acquisition (see e.g. Paradis & Grüter 2014 and references there). The term input has been used in a variety of ways in second language acquisition research. Corder (1981) defines input as “what goes in”, not what is “available” for going in, of the linguistic stimuli provided by the outside world. According to Krashen (1982) optimal input has to be comprehensible, interesting (or relevant), in sufficient quantity, and authentic, i.e. informal and natural as in real life daily communication (see also Cook 1991). To the extent that Icelandic is in fact losing ground to English, it is important to ask whether the English input available to the Icelandic language community has changed and is more optimal now in this sense, than it was some years and decades ago. Are Icelanders exposed to more English than before, which is more relevant to them, and which form is more authentic and thus more comprehensible?
Studies of adult exposure to English show a high and consistent presence of English in Iceland. Arnbjörnsdóttir (2011) asked more than 900 adult Icelanders, age 18 and up, about their English proficiency and use. Their results show a significant increase in English use according to age group, as the youngest age group uses English the most and the oldest group uses English the least. Exposure to receptive language is significantly more prevalent than English language production. A vast majority of the adults interviewed felt that their English language proficiency was good or rather good. The findings of these studies shed a light on adult Icelanders’ exposure to and use of English as an international language. The project aims to complement these results with a study that examines the presence of English in the lives of young Icelanders who are at an optimal age for language acquisition. We will study the impact of novel types of English input in the Icelandic language community, such as new forms of interactive smartphones, computer games and social media, which arguably provide more optimal input than older sources of English in Iceland, with a special emphasis on young speakers.
A number of studies on Icelandic first language acquisition have been carried out in the last few decades and one of the PIs, Professor Sigurjónsdóttir, has been in the forefront of this growing field in Iceland. She is an expert on first language acquisition and language change. Two of the project participants, Professors Thordardottir and Arnbjörnsdóttir, also specialize in language acquisition, in particular, bilingual acquisition and Icelandic-English language contact. The experience of these professors with first and second language acquisition research in Iceland will be crucial for the success of the project which considers the changed landscape of input in Iceland and models its effect on language development, as digital contact with English intensifies.
A formal model of language acquisition maps the initial state of the learner to a terminal state which represents a fully acquired language, on the basis of experience in the environment. The Variational Model of Yang (2002) makes predictions about the language acquired in generation n+1 if the distribution of input produced by the previous generation n is known. The model considers the common situation where the learner approaches new input data with two possible linguistic hypotheses in mind. Such a situation may arise if the input data is actually generated by multiple linguistic systems, as in bilingual speech communities or when a community is undergoing language change, or because the learner has spontaneously decided to consider two options. When two linguistic systems can be used in the same context, for example because a structural difference does not reflect a meaning difference, they can be modeled as competing for use in the speech community or competing for acquisition in the brain of a child. Under such competition, the model predicts that the system which manifests itself unambiguously more often in the relevant context will gain usage at the expense of the alternative system or hypothesis. The linguistic alternative that better signals its presence to the learner is predicted to win out in use and acquisition, both in the learning process of a single child, and iterated over generations.
The project will build on the experience of the participants in modeling language acquisition and linguistic change based on the input. Furthermore, it will extend the Variational Model to take into account aspects of the social environment, such as the intensity of the input and the age at which a speaker is exposed to a certain type of input, as well as interference between languages in a bilingual environment. In addition to studying competence metrics in the two distinct languages, Icelandic and English, the project will study the relationship between digital contact and known ongoing change. Importantly, a previous RANNIS project, Variation in Syntax (2005-2007) in which both the PIs in the current project participated (Thráinsson et al. 2013), has provided substantial knowledge about several ongoing linguistic changes in Icelandic and this knowledge will allow us to construct efficient experiments to study potential interactions between the relevant changes and the status of English in the environment of individual speakers. One of the project participants, Dr. Angantýsson, is an expert on synchronic syntactic variation and he was also a member of the Variation in Syntax project. He has studied variable usage in Icelandic syntax, including the behavior of the verb second constraint (Angantýsson 2011), a topic which will be revisited in the extended context of the project.
Language vitality in the digital age
In the literature on language vitality assessment tools, the revitalization of near-extinct and “undoubtedly” endangered languages has received most attention. Thus, language revitalization case studies, rather than research into language maintenance, seem to have laid down the main principles of Fishman’s pioneering work in this field, the G(raded) I(ntergenerational) D(isruption) S(cale) (Fishman 1991), and likewise that of subsequent authors who have adopted and modified his original model (cf. Fishman (Ed.) 2001). The most significant improvements were made by the editors of Ethnologue.com, Lewis & Simons (2010), who proposed the E(xpanded)GIDS. An important and influential alternative approach to language vitality assessment was made by the UNESCO experts (UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages 2003; 2011) whose guidelines listed (originally) 9 factors of language vitality (see also e.g. Grenoble & Whaley 2006; Pearson & Amaral 2014).
For those who are reluctant to question the traditional mainstream position on the assessment of language vitality, that positions national languages in Europe in a category of safe languages in the 21st century, social actors see no need for concern about their future. And also, some prominent authors hold the view that the fear of English language dominance is not truly based on facts. No statutory national languages in Europe should be in any danger if one adopts the view of for example Mufwene (2010) who rejects the concern that the spread of English threatens the national languages in Europe (cf. also De Swaan 2010). For an opposite view, see Kornai (2013); Rehm & Uzkoreit (2012). Evidently, current advances in (predominantly English-based) language technology are not taken into account, or only minimally (cf. UNESCO experts’ Factor 5, ‘Response to New Domains and Media’), as one categorically accepts the principle that state languages are and will remain secure.
Consequently, it seems to us that there is good reason to reexamine the most common language vitality assessment tools, and to make an attempt at postulating a revised one. Language maintenance, and not revitalization, and the advent of advanced language technology, rather than traditional media, must be given priority in assessing the status of languages, national languages and minority languages alike, in the 21st century. Digital minoritization, where a major part of linguistic input through new domains and media is in English and not in a local/traditional language, plays a substantial role in a prospective revision of vitality assessment methods.
Lifespan change and bilingualism
The critical period hypothesis for language acquisition (Lenneberg 1967) states that the ability to acquire the grammar of a language is linked to age. According to this hypothesis there is a maturationally fixed period for the implicit learning of grammatical systems in naturalistic settings, after which native-like acquisition is difficult and, for most individuals, never achieved. The critical period hypothesis has been contested for both first and second language acquisition (see the overview in DeKeyser & Larson-Hall 2005) and, for example, a sensitive or optimal period suggested instead. However, a large amount of evidence indicates that there is a turning point for the acquisition of various features of grammar in middle childhood, around or between the ages of 6-9 years. Positive correlations between competence and early childhood acquisition seem to be consistent and salient findings in the literature (Pearson & Amaral 2014; DeKeyser & Larson-Hall 2005). Thus, it is important to document the effect of digital contact on linguistic competence with respect to speakers’ age and the establishment of bilingualism in Iceland.
The project aims to answer the question if digital contact affects the linguistic knowledge of younger speakers more than adult speakers and whether it matters if the younger speakers are young children, older children or teenagers. Also, it must be clarified whether the status of digitally imported English competence is better described in terms of interference to the native competence or in terms of bilingualism. If young Icelandic speakers’ proficiency in English is moving from receptive knowledge to more expressive use, due to digital contact, this can be the onset of bilingualism which signals vulnerability. Thus, the development of bilingualism is a risk factor for a language on the UNESCO language vitality and endangerment scales, as it means that the local/traditional language is not fully “the language of interaction, identity, thinking, creativity and entertainment, and [is not] actively used in all discourse domains for all purposes” (UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages 2003:9; Pearson & Amaral 2014:101).
There are strong indications that the use of English among young Icelandic speakers is growing and that they favor English at the expense of Icelandic. Jóhannsdóttir (to appear) examined over 400 Icelandic 4th grade students’ (9-10 years old) attitude towards English, in particular their motivation for learning English vocabulary, and their actual English vocabulary skills. The results support previous assumptions of the extensive English proficiency of young Icelandic learners which exceed curriculum goals for the 4th grade. The main findings of the study are that children’s language proficiency is acquired largely extramurally and motivated by a need to use English in their daily lives. Thus, these results suggest that 9-10 year old children in Iceland see their future selves as general users of English.
The extent to which digital contact shapes the linguistic knowledge of speakers in adult life also has consequences for language vitality. Although people seem to form their basic grammatical system in early childhood, older children, adolescents, and even adults seem to be capable of changing their linguistic knowledge later in life, with children being the most sensitive to properties of the input and teenagers perhaps being relatively more likely to manifest change than adults. If we find that digital contact with English influences any deep aspects of linguistic knowledge in adult speakers the findings must be reconciled with previous work on lifespan change. A growing number of studies of change throughout the life of individuals has uncovered a number of patterns which demand a more refined understanding of notions such as the critical period for language acquisition.
Documented cases of linguistic change later in life include second dialect acquisition (Prince 1988; Sankoff 2004; Nycz 2013, Kwon 2014), change in stable variation (‘age-grading’) (Wagner 2012; Rickford & Price 2013), as well as engagement with ongoing community change, whether it is participation in the direction of the change (Harrington et al. 2000; Raumolin-Brunberg 2005; Sankoff & Blondeau 2007; MacKenzie & Sankoff 2010) or a reversal of the change (Wagner & Sankoff 2011). We will investigate how digital contact compares with other studies of change where adult speakers are affected by exposure to new types of input. A recent RANNIS-poject led by Thráinsson and Arnbjörnsdóttir, Heritage language, linguistic change and cultural identity (2012-2015), examined attrition and incomplete language acquisition in speakers of North-American Icelandic. This data will provide useful examples of lifespan change in Icelandic under contact with English.
One of the primary goals of the project is to adapt methods from various areas of language science (speech pathology, theoretical linguistics and bilingualism) to evaluate the effects of digital language contact. Part of the first year of the project will therefore be dedicated to the adaptation and development of the various assessment tools, shaping them to fit our theoretical goals. Since some of the tools will be developed specifically for the project, a pilot study will be conducted during the project’s first year, running 10 subjects for the main study and 40 for the online study. The second year will be dedicated to data collection and the third year to data analysis, modelling and the creation of a new language vitality index. Throughout the project, master’s students and research assistants will work with the project proposers on various parts of the project, especially data collection and data analysis.
The main data collection will be organized in three different steps which will complement each other. An online survey, administered by the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Iceland, will be sent to a stratified random sample of 5000 speakers (Online Controlled (OC) group). The purpose is to obtain information on the amount and nature of input the speakers receive in English and Icelandic. Sociolinguistic variables, like speakers’ language attitudes and self-evaluation of their skills in the respective languages, will also be assessed. These variables will then be related to the measurement of the participants’ language ability in both languages and across domains. This survey will allow generalizations on the patterns found within the Icelandic population and will thus be a crucial step in constructing the nationwide profile of the amount and intensity of Icelandic and English input speakers receive.
The second step consists in in-depth interviews with a group comprising 400 speakers (Intensive Controlled (IC) group) selected from the participants in the online survey according to certain criteria. They will be assessed in a careful and precise manner to obtain more fine-grained information on the same variables as the online survey. The interviews will be carried out by master’s students and research assistants.
The third step of data collection will consist of getting a large proportion of the population (~10%, Online Non-Controlled (ON) group) to participate in the same online survey by using crowdsourcing methods focused on social media. This will be a less controlled methodological experiment which will still allow us to test the predictive power of our models. Iceland has the highest percentage of Internet users in Europe, 96.5%, and in January 2014, 70% of Internet users in Iceland were active social media users. Iceland was ranked highest among European countries, the European average being 40%. This second phase of the online study, which will be carried out by master’s students and research assistants, will therefore be an opportunity to evaluate the methodological feasibility of crowdsourcing research methods in an Icelandic context.
Although there will be two different types of data collection (interviews and online survey), the targeted information will be the same across groups. It will be divided into a background survey, input survey and knowledge survey. In addition to this, language samples will be collected for an open anonymized database. The specific data collection methods will be adapted to the age groups with different approaches for the youngest participants. Ten different age groups will be targeted, with narrower age intervals for the younger speakers: 3-5, 6-9, 10-12, 13-15, 16-20, 25-30, 35-40, 45-50, 55-60 and higher than 65. This division takes into account critical period theories for language, onset of English learning in schools, age restrictions for the use of social media and the age frame for compulsory education.
The background survey will target basic sociological information about the participants, such as age, gender, education, occupation and history of places of residence through life. We will also draw a sketch of language input through the lifespan based on the information we collect in the input survey, additionally gathering detailed information about the languages the subject has studied or been exposed to (where, when and for how long). Based on this, a sociolinguistic structured interview will be conducted to gather quantitative (through Likert-scales) and qualitative data on the participants’ attitudes towards the languages they have been exposed to.
To create the input profile for each participant, we will estimate the proportion each language occupies in his language space. This will be done by mapping the participant’s daily activities to the input they receive, dividing up the hours of their day between the languages they are exposed too. The input will be measured using relevant technology when possible, through strategies like tracking the use of different apps in participants’ smartphones. This initial quantification of the input will be complemented by a qualitative assessment in which the input will be classified according to relevant criteria, for example passive or interactive, private or in groups, formal or informal register and written or spoken. The medium of the input (e.g. online chat or physical conversation) will be documented and, when relevant, the relationship in each instance of language exchange (e.g. Icelandic peer or L2 learner of Icelandic) will be assessed.
This qualitative data will be used to estimate the number of sentences in each language per hour, depending on the nature of input (e.g. spending time on social media, playing an online interactive video game, reading a book). There will therefore be two measures for each participant: (1) the percentage of each language in their input based on daily activities and (2) the number of sentences received and produced in each language (estimate based on the qualitative classification). By combining this data with the results from the knowledge survey, we will be able to determine the decisive factors for language loss and therefore identify the factors which need to constitute an updated language vitality index.
To address the theoretical and empirical goals of the project, the knowledge surveys will span various aspects of language ranging from shallow properties like receptive and productive vocabulary to deep features of grammar such as verb movement. We will use relevant pre-existing test material for language change in Icelandic (Thráinsson et al. 2013; Sigurjónsdóttir 2015; Nowenstein 2015a,b) and language development in both Icelandic and English, some of which is standardized (TOLD (Símonardóttir & Guðmundsson 1996) and PPVT (Ólafsdóttir 2011)). These tasks include acceptability judgments, confrontation naming, picture selection, and sentence completion among other methods. In addition, Icelandic knowledge surveys will be specifically designed for the theoretical purpose of the project, focusing on late-acquisition and low-frequency aspects of the language. Correlated with the information from the input surveys, we will be able to answer questions about the effects of the English and Icelandic environment on the linguistic items tested, establishing how a digitally bilingual social environment shapes the linguistic knowledge of speakers. This will also give us tools for the development of a new language vitality index for the present context of digital minoritization.
The testing of properties which have already been thoroughly documented in Icelandic is crucial for our understanding of the effects of an increasingly bilingual input on pre-existing linguistic variation. This includes results from the Variation in Syntax project mentioned above, as well as the project Heritage language, linguistic change and cultural identity (Arnbjörnsdóttir 2015) and the vast research on the New Impersonal Construction (e.g. Sigurjónsdóttir & Maling 2001; Maling & Sigurjónsdóttir 2002; 2012; 2015; Barðdal & Molnár 2003; Eythórsson 2008; Jónsson 2009; Sigurðsson 2011; Sigurðsson 2012; Ingason et al. 2013; Sigurjónsdóttir 2015; Sigurjónsdóttir & Nowenstein in press) and Dative Substitution (e.g. Svavarsdóttir 1982; Eythórsson & Jónsson 2003; Thráinsson et al. 2013; Nowenstein 2015a, b). This gives us the opportunity to evaluate whether linguistic change is more rapid when the language of previous generations becomes less prominent in the input.
An important part of the project will be to collect controlled language samples (e.g. Brown 1973; Thordardottir & Weismer 1998; Evans & Miller 1999) from the IC group and store them in an open anonymized database. This type of database does not exist for Icelandic and it would be an important contribution to the available tools for the study of the language. In addition to the IC group, we will collect naturalistic data from social groups which reportedly use an increased amount of English. This would include certain age groups (e.g. adolescents) and groups defined by occupational factors (e.g. online gamers). This naturalistic data will be composed of digital data collected through social media and spoken data collected in collaboration with teachers in public schools.
Our scientific results and the data and methodologies we develop will be disseminated in various ways. We will submit papers to international and domestic conferences and scientific journals dealing with general linguistics, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, bilingualism, language acquisition, language policy, language planning, endangered languages, etc. We will prioritize publication in open access journals. In other cases, pdf-versions of our published papers will be made freely accessible in open data repositories.
We will make sure that anonymized data from our surveys will be released and made available as an open database to the extent compatible with respecting the privacy of our participants. This database will be accessible via the website Málföng.is (Language Resources for Icelandic), maintained by the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.
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