top of page

New methodologies for investigating heritage speakers and their languages

Summary of "Current trends and emerging methodologies in charting heritage language bilingual grammars" chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of Heritage Languages and Linguistics

Post by Grazia Di Pisa

The field of heritage language acquisition has emerged in earnest over the past two decades as part of a wave of expansion in investigating bilingual language scenarios beyond the two previously widely studied cases: (i) simultaneous child bilingual (2L1) development and (ii) non-native adult second language (L2) acquisition. Whereas 2L1 development tends to follow qualitatively similar paths and developmental milestones to monolingual children, adult L2 learners are often significantly different in developmental sequencing and outcomes.

But what about heritage speakers?

Let’s first start by explaining who are heritage speakers and why it is important to study this population.

Heritage speakers are a special type of early bilinguals, typically children of first-generation immigrants born in a bilingual environment. Heritage speakers acquire the heritage language, which is not the society’s majority language, as their first language at home, usually from their parents. At the same time or when they start going to kindergarten or school, they are increasingly exposed to the language of the society, which will often become the dominant or majority language in adult age. Despite being L1 speakers of the heritage language, heritage speakers can diverge from their monolingual peers in terms of linguistic knowledge and language use. For example, a heritage speaker may be quite comfortable talking about everyday topics but lack vocabulary on subjects that go beyond personal experiences and themes.

Understanding how and why heritage grammars develop the way they do, inclusive of what variables predict outcomes at the individual level, can offer profound insights for linguistic theory in general as well as for challenges related to language maintenance, contact, policy and contribute to our general understanding of the bilingual brain. However, capturing what heritage speakers actually know about (one of) their heritage grammar(s) is especially challenging for various reasons related to their experiences with their HL, how we test such knowledge and the interface of the two.

In this chapter, we start by reviewing what has already been done in recent years in the field of heritage language bilingualism to take stock of where we are at methodologically. We first give an overview of studies that used offline/behavioural methods, for example, acceptability judgment tasks, comprehension tasks, production (elicitation tasks and natural corpora) and recognition tasks, to investigate this population’s explicit knowledge about their heritage language and then we place a special emphasis on newer online methods, such as self-paced reading tasks, masked priming tasks, eye-tracking, and the electroencephalography (EEG) methodology, used recently to the domain of HL bilingualism. We believe online methods tapping into heritage speaker’s implicit knowledge are particularly suited to uncover the underlying basis of individual differences in heritage speaker outcomes as well as to capture more automatic indexes of processing, giving us a more direct access to how language processing unfolds in real time.

Bayram, F., Di Pisa, G., Rothman, J., & Slabakova, R. (2020). Current trends and emerging methodologies in charting heritage language bilingual grammars.

105 views0 comments


bottom of page