Faculty Publications


Chinese preschool codeswitching: Mandarin babytalk and the voice of authority1

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Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development





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Using Carol Scotton’s (1983, 1988) model of codeswitching based on markedness theory I examine a type of register variation which is referred to as ‘babytalk’, ambiguously talk of babies (or young children) and talk to babies or young children. Examples are drawn from videotapes of naturally occurring conversation among Mandarin Chinese speaking children (ages 2 1/2-6 years) and teachers in several preschools in Taiwan. Considering babytalk as one type of codeswitching adds a new perspective to studies of child language acquisition and socialisation, while highlighting the need for a developmental perspective and more sensitivity to local constructions of person and society in the codeswitching literature. The claim that babytalk is a universal speech register is examined in light of cross-cultural evidence, including my Chinese data. A style related to babytalk, a ‘language of socialisation’ (Gleason, 1973) or what I refer to as ‘the voice of authority’, is used by teachers to preschool students, while babytalk is retained on a diminishing scale as children become older, as though to ease the transition to a clearly didactic style. In talking to children, Chinese teachers codeswitch between this unmarked voice of authority and a babytalk register. I argue that these two speech styles, babytalk and the voice of authority, are motivated by Chinese cultural assumptions about children and childhood. A metaphorical or secondary use of babytalk, referred to in Chinese as sajiao, is intimately intertwined with notions of gender and the expression of masculinity and femininity in Taiwan’s society. © 1992 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

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