Silvina Montrul - Foto: University of Illinois

Heritage speakers grow up in a bilingual environment and as adults vary widely in their proficiency in the heritage language, ranging from receptive, low to highly fluent and native-like. Many of them, but not all, display “errors” typical of first and second language development, especially in aspects of grammar. Their grammatical knowledge diverges in several ways from the knowledge of their parents, the input providers. Up until now, the vast majority of formal linguistic-oriented studies on heritage speakers finding divergent outcomes have been conducted in the United States, a country that does not promote active and long-lasting bilingualism in immigrant families. The escalating pressure on immigrant children to become fluent speakers of English interferes with the healthy development of the heritage language. While there are several factors that determine heritage language acquisition, research has focused on the role of the immediate input, language use, and language dominance factors. Less is known about how the larger sociopolitical context contributes to heritage language maintenance and transmission in society more generally. In this talk, I discuss examples of convergent outcomes of heritage speakers with their input providers, and most of these studies have been conducted in other parts of the world, where bilingualism and multilingualism seem to have higher status. Convergent outcomes support the assertion that while heritage speakers are born with the cognitive capacity to learn their languages fully, the extent of heritage language acquisition is highly determined by the context. The language of heritage speakers looks they way it does, not because of deficiencies within the individual, but because of the educational practices, social attitudes and policies that deprive these speakers of their native language. Understanding the external forces beyond the family that shape heritage language development and contribute to convergent and divergent outcomes is critical to support the survival of heritage languages for several generations.

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