New Zealand English, as spoken, is quite different today compared to 120 years ago. It is thought that children carry the momentum for accent change through the generations and that the transition to school is a key speech change incubator. In a first of its kind study, two University of Canterbury (UC) research institutes - the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour (NZILBB) and Child Well-being Research Institute – will be investigating these fascinating shifts in accent from age 5.

With the support of a $614,000 grant from Marsden Fund Te Putea Rangahau a Marsden, the study’s researchers will precisely test and analyse what is going on with spoken New Zealand English as children start school. No other study has ever tracked children through this transition. The assumption is that changes in accent start to happen then because children are essentially talking a lot more with their peer group and a lot less with parents and caregivers.

“Our study will explore this assumption that children’s speech departs from the adult model at age 5, and accelerates into a period of reorganisation, shaped by their peers,” says Dr Lynn Clark, of NZILBB. “It will also shed light on the speed and mechanism through which these changes take place.”

UC is uniquely positioned to carry out this study because of the combined expertise available through the two research institutes involved. The research is also being completed according to guidelines for Maori research established by Te Kahui Kaihautu, the Maori reference group for the NZILBB.

“This study will significantly contribute to our fundamental understanding of processes of language evolution and change, and the particular role played in these processes by young children,” Dr Clark says.