Research in Colombia gives Schreyer Scholar insight into rare language

Jeff Rice
October 04, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rebecca Barnes spent summers speaking French at summer camp in Canada. She would speak Spanish with relatives from Cuba. The Schreyer Honors Scholar, who is majoring in letters, arts and sciences; Spanish; and French and Francophone studies, has always had an ear for languages.

The way the people of San Basilo de Palenque, Colombia, conversed in multiple languages, though, was different from what she had heard before.

As part of a research project funded by multiple grants, Barnes traveled to Palenque to study how its residents code switch between Spanish and Lengua Palenquera, a Creole-based language spoken by only a few thousand people.

Code switching occurs when multilingual speakers alternate between two or more languages during a conversation or, in some cases, in mid-sentence.

“A lot of people who are really used to code switching feel that it’s one of the better ways they have to communicate and to express themselves,” Barnes said. “It’s a good window into how languages interact in the bilingual brain and why identity sometimes is better expressed not using one language but both.”

In the summer of 2017, Barnes made her first visit to the village in Colombia and began an experiment funded by a Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) grant. She made a return visit this past summer with funding from an Erickson Discovery Grant.

Her honors thesis is based on research that initially set out to discover if individuals who had received formal education in Lengua Palenquera will identify Lengua differently than those with less education but who have more experience speaking the language in code-switching scenarios. The second experiment explored whether code-switched sentences containing more Lengua than Spanish would be deemed more acceptable by members of the community than the other way around.

“The first time I went to Colombia, my hypothesis was wrong. I stipulated that older people that had less education but more experience code switching between Lengua Palenquera and Spanish would generally be better at identifying code switches,” she said. “I was surprised by how big of a role the language revitalization program that’s been instituted in that village in the past 30 years or so played and how much that influenced people’s ability to just hear a phrase and pick it apart.”

John Lipski, Edwin Erie Sparks Professor of Spanish and Linguistics and the director of Penn State’s Program in Linguistics, takes a group of students to San Basilo de Palenque each year. He has seen encouraging effects of that revitalization program but also frustration among some of the village’s teachers. 

“There are Palenquero language classes in the schools, but they don’t explain it, they don’t ask the kids to produce anything or critique. There’s really no feedback,” Lipski said. “It’s the idea that you’ll learn it by osmosis. Now, they’re finally realizing that’s not working.”

Subject analyses by Lipski and his team revealed that the best speakers and code switchers were younger students who had a combination of the formal training and had the language reinforced by people at home, or young adults who had postsecondary training.

“We found a group that was very good at it, and the thing they had in common was more practice in not only using the language but talking about it,” Lipski said.

Part of Barnes’ research is designed to identify pedagogical strategies that may work best in teaching — and, in turn, preserving — a Creole language. 

“Researchers that have gone and who will go to Palenque are contributing to the survival of a language that is symbolic of humanity’s triumph over enslavement, social stigmatization and relative geographic isolation,” Barnes said. “This research could prove to be important to the linguistic community if it were to reveal details about the way that bilinguals perceive and process codeswitches, but it is also important for the Afrohispanic diaspora in that it keeps history alive.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total more than 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who excel academically and lead on campus.

Last Updated October 05, 2018