The investigation of tag questions in a computerised corpus of child bilingual language.

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In this paper I show how corpus linguistics methodology can make an original contribution to the study of discourse features, such as tag questions, in the speech of bilinguals. By combining quantitative analyses of the corpus data with subsequent qualitative examination, much is revealed about the use (and changes in use) of tag questions by two bilingual siblings. Due to the relative structural complexity of tag questions in English, much of the research published on these discourse features involves studies carried out exclusively on speakers of English: Tottie and Hoffman (2006) compared tag questions used by British and American English speakers; Stenstrom et al (2002) and Torgersen and Costas (2009) reported on the use of invariant tags (such as ‘innit’, ‘okay’, ‘right’ and ‘you get me’) by adolescents in London; and Moore and Podesva (2009) investigated canonical tag questions used by high school girls in the Northwest of England. But what of speakers who regularly use another language in addition to English? With access to two systems of tag questions, it is logical to suppose that bilinguals might make more use of those tags which are less complex to use, especially when both languages are simultaneously activated, such as when code-switching. The present study goes beyond purely monolingual English discourse, examining the speech of two bilingual children (Brazilian/British) and analysing their use of tag questions, whether in monolingual Portuguese, monolingual English or mixed (code-switched) utterances. Unlike Mills’ study of her bilingual German/English son (1981), which involved the manual analysis of data (notes and tape recordings), the methodology used in the current study draws on Corpus Linguistics and involves the automated retrieval and analysis of tag questions using the CLAN tools (MacWhinney, 2010b). Transcribed according to the CHAT system (MacWhinney, 2010a), the corpus contains over 150 recordings (approximately 30 hours) of naturalistic interactions taking place between the two main informants, a girl ‘M’ and her brother ‘J’ (aged 5 and 3 years at the beginning of data collection in 2001), and their monolingual and bilingual family relatives. Longitudinal in nature, the recordings were collected over four years, primarily in Brazil where the siblings were born and where they lived until moving to England in 2004. In addition to standard CHAT conventions, special codes were designed and inserted throughout the corpus to allow for the automatic analysis of various linguistic phenomena such as insertional code-switching, mixed forms, meta-linguistic comments, errors and tag questions, the particular focus of this paper. My presentation will begin with a detailed look at the methodological aspects of the study including the coding system and the use of CLAN commands (FREQ, COOCCUR and KWAL) to carry out the analyses. Following this, I will discuss the results and show what they reveal about the bilingual children's use of tag questions over the three year period of the study. Such discussion will include a consideration of how developmental factors and changes in the siblings' sociolinguistic environment are seen to affect their use of this discourse feature. MACWHINNEY, B. (2010a). The CHILDES Project, Tools for Analyzing Talk – Electronic Edition. Part 1: The CHAT Transcription Format. Carnegie Mellon University. Available online: . MACWHINNEY, B. (2010b). The CHILDES Project, Tools for Analyzing Talk – Electronic Edition. Part 2: The CLAN Programs. Carnegie Mellon University. Available online: . MILLS, A., E. (1981). It’s easier in German, isn’t it? The acquisition of tag questions in a bilingual child. Journal of Child Language. 8, 641-647. MOORE, E. & PODESVA, R. (2009). Style, indexicality and the social meaning of tag questions. Language in Society, 38(4), 447-485. STENSTROM, A-B., ANDERSEN, G. & HASUND, I. K. (2002) Trends in teenage talk: corpus compilation, analysis, and findings. Studies in corpus linguistics. 8. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins TORGERSEN, E. & COSTAS, G (2009) A corpus-based study of invariant tags in London English. In: Corpus Linguistics 2009, 2009-07-21 - 2009-07-23, University of Liverpool, UK. (Unpublished) TOTTIE, G. & HOFFMAN, S. (2006). Tag Questions in British and American English. Journal of English Linguistics. 34(4), 283-311.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2014
Event6th International Conference on Corpus Linguistics - University of Las Palmas, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
Duration: 22 May 201424 May 2014


Conference6th International Conference on Corpus Linguistics
Abbreviated titleCILC 2014
CityLas Palmas, Gran Canaria


  • tag questions
  • corpus linguistics
  • code-switching


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