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Teen Speech Shapes Up On the Way to College

Teens sit in a high school classroom
(Image credit: <a href=''>School photo </a> via Shutterstock)

With their text-speak and their overuse of "like," kids these days are destroying the English language … right?

Not so fast. According to a new study, teenagers actually dial back their use of "nonstandard" English as they get older, especially if they have ambitious plans for college. 

"It seems as if in high school, students who want to go to a good college are the ones who early on begin to dial back their use of nonstandard language," study researcher Suzanne Evans Wagner, a professor of linguistics at Michigan State University, said in a statement. "And the ones who have no aspirations to leave their local community, or who have no particular aspirations to raise their social class, are the people who have no obvious social incentives to change the way they speak."

Wagner followed the language trends of 16- to 19-year-old female teens in Philadelphia. From the students' high-school senior year to college freshman year, she measured how often they used "in" versus "ing" in words like "running." The standard pronunciation is "ing," but many students preferred the slangy sound of "runnin."

As students got older, however, those who attended or planned to attend a college with a national research reputation — such as a large state school or large private institution — stopped dropping their g's. Students who went to community college, small liberal arts colleges or small regional schools continued using the "in" pronunciations for the most part, showing only a small increase in standard "ing" pronunciations.

Most likely, students attending national research institutions shape their speech to match that of other students from around the country, Wagner said. For students who stay near home, sounding local may be a bigger motivator.  

"When you track people across their lives ­— even if it's only a short space in between — as long as that time frame involves a lot of upheaval, it seems you really can see linguistic change," she said.

Wagner now plans to study students who move back in with their parents after failing to find post-college jobs. She's interested in finding out whether they return to their local speech roots.

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.