Dr. Shalini Shankar of Northwestern University will study child language socialization through the exploration of contests that are focused on ritualized learning. This project will employ cultural and linguistic anthropological methodologies to investigate how ritualized learning contests contribute to processes of child socialization, language commodification, and the production of identities and racial imagery in the contemporary United States. It addresses these questions: 1) How do children and parents participate together in socialization rituals learn specialized ways of speaking, relevant vocal and visualization techniques, and embodied practices to excel at spelling bees? 2) How has the increased commercialization of these contests through corporate branding and prime-time broadcasting transformed this language education exercise into a mass mediated, sport-like spectacle? 3) How are the youth who succeed subject to scrutiny and characterizations that contribute to overall meanings about immigration, race, and the English language? Data will be collected via observations, audio recordings, video taping, and interviews: at three organizations that produce these events the latter two of which are exclusively for South Asian Americans; at select regional and national events; and in childrens' (ages 6-14) homes to document their preparation practices and intergenerational relationships. Interviews will be conducted with children, their parents, coaches, spelling bee organizers, pronouncers, judges, corporate sponsors, and media broadcasters. Data will be analyzed to consider the significance of the everyday acquisition and on-stage execution of socialization to broader debates of socioeconomics, language, race, and media.

The project will contribute to several contemporary anthropological debates about language and socioeconomic change, by offering broader insights about the commodification of the English language and new roles for English in globalizing economies; youth, language, and socialization, by exploring new perspectives on new paradigms of child learning and socialization; and media, race, and language, by providing fine-grained empirical data about how broadcast media and racial ideologies coalesce in the reinforcement of stereotypes about race, immigration, and English language standardization.

Project broader impacts will occur as follows: 1) several scholarly articles and a monograph; 2) at least two articles written in clear, jargon-free prose aimed at K-12 educators and the general public; 3) the on-site methodological training of undergraduate and graduate students; the PI will guide students in conducting ethnographic observations and interviews with subjects of different ages; 4) the creation of a free, child-friendly, website developed from project data; this educational intervention will address inequities in preparation materials and adult mentoring by advancing learning techniques, including a "tutor" function that will quiz children when adults are unavailable; and 5) the use of recordings, transcripts, and other project data for linguistic and cultural anthropology teaching and mentoring.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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Northwestern University at Chicago
United States
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