When Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain wanted to perfect her Dutch skills a few years ago, she took to the internet in search of online communities to interact with using the language. What she found on a social media site populated by young Dutch speakers piqued her professional interest as a sociolinguist — someone who studies the intersection of language and society.
“One of the things I noticed was that they were using a lot of English,” says the professor of German applied linguistics in the Department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies. “But in a really, really different way than what I was accustomed to with young people in Germany.”
She found a similar online community of German youth for comparison and began examining the differences in earnest after receiving permission from both groups. What had begun as a personal endeavour to develop her Dutch soon turned into an entire research project.
Dailey-O’Cain found that the Dutch speakers not only used more English, they also used it more creatively and with greater proficiency than the Germans, employing entire phrases in English and even digital-specific acronyms like “OMG”. In contrast, rather than use complex and even inventive English phrases, German speakers were much more likely to only use an occasional English word for which there is no German equivalent, such as “geocaching”.
How does Dailey-O’Cain explain the differences? She thinks that part of it has to do with the amount of English to which each group has been exposed. Dutch media, for example, is subtitled in English, while German media is only dubbed in English. But she also sees it as something much bigger.
“I think it has to do with the way young German people and young Dutch people feel about the idea of English as an international language,” she explains. “They have different ideologies, part of which comes from the way the two different cultures look at nationalism.”
She suspects that the Dutch see English as an international language, which, in their minds, makes it everybody’s possession and gives them permission to use the language in much more creative ways. Germans on the other hand, tend to see English as an important language and want to learn it for practical reasons such as helping them get jobs or communicating with friends in English-speaking countries.
“I’m a social scientist. Language is the lens that I use to explain society.”
The research is a real departure from Dailey-O’Cain’s previous work which has focused entirely on spoken language. Previous projects included a study of the use of stereotypical accents in Disney films and the use of the word “like” in speech. But she explains that while online communication is written, it actually contains many elements of spoken discourse, making it very conversational and spontaneous.
The second half of Dailey-O’Cain’s project involves interviews with members of both communities that she hopes will reveal more about their attitudes toward English. She’s also interested in perhaps designing similar research projects involving other European languages.
“I really think that this research, as trivial as it sounds on the face of things, will end up saying something useful about English as an international language and the way young people are being socialized toward it,” says Dailey-O’Cain. “I’m a social scientist. Language is the lens that I use to explain society.”