Heritage Languages in North America: Sociolinguistic Approaches

in Journal of Language Contact

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This special issue of the Journal of Language Contact focuses on heritage languages in the United States. Heritage languages offer new opportunities and pose new theoretical, empirical and methodological questions, in that traditional lines of inquiry cannot be directly imported from the study of monolingual speakers alone; and even in comparison to other bilingual communities, the social contexts and patterns of language use over the lifespan do not map onto traditional L1/L2 models. The last two decades have witnessed an increased interest in formal and experimental research on heritage languages, building on both recent scholarship with wide-reaching implications (e.g., Benmamoun et al., 2013; Montrul, 2008), as well as foundational, twentieth-century works on immigration, migration, and language contact in the American context (e.g., Haugen, 1953; Weinreich et al., 1968). In addition to documenting language use in individual communities in language contact situations, the field of heritage language linguistics must engage with:

  • previous scholarship and approaches to the study of language use, which must be adapted or amended for the study of heritage languages;

  • the role of English in heritage language bilingualism in the u.s. as an enriching or limiting factor;

  • the role of the pre-immigration sociolinguistic context and variety, both in the first (founder) generation of immigrants, and the possible continued exposure to the monolingual standard of the homeland;

  • the role of social institutions in the acquisition and maintenance of the heritage language;

  • tendencies of language change in language contact settings;

  • and the change in patterns of language use over the lifespan, as monolingual heritage speaker children often become English-dominant adults.

This current issue and the forthcoming second installment seek to continue this trend with innovative and original research on heritage and immigrant languages in North America. Most importantly, we seek to expand the field with contributions that work explicitly in the context of language contact studies. Most of the articles grew out of conversations and presentations at the fourth and fifth Workshop on Immigrant Languages in the Americas (wila)—a group meeting thus far both in North America and in Europe with scholars representing different language contact situations, different languages, and different approaches to studying heritage languages. Previous publications stemming from wila include: Norsk i Amerika (Special issue of Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift / Norwegian Linguistics Journal, 2012; Janne Bondi Johannessen and Joseph Salmons, eds.); Germanic Heritage Languages in North America: Acquisition, attrition and change (Studies in Language Variation 18) (John Benjamins, 2015; Janne Bondi Johannessen and Joseph Salmons, eds.), and Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages in North America (Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory 8), (Brill, 2015; B. Richard Page and Michael T. Putnam, eds.).

Heritage language linguistics has a strong research tradition in North America. Pioneers in the field include Einar Haugen, Joshua Fishman, Lester W.J. Seifert, and Max and Uriel Weinreich, who appreciated the implications that multilingual realities have for language behavior. It is no surprise that they themselves were children of multilingual realities, in which the social context of bilingualism was as crucial a factor as the bi- or multilingualism itself. Einar Haugen was born in Iowa to Norwegian immigrants; Max Weinreich was born in (what is now) Latvia in a German-speaking home, his son Uriel was born in Poland, spoke Yiddish and other languages and lived in New York; Seifert grew up in Juneau, Wisconsin, speaking Oderbrüchisch (Low German) alongside High German and English; and Joshua Fishman learned Yiddish alongside English in Philadelphia. In retrospect, these linguists formed part of the basis for what is now called ‘heritage language linguistics’. As linguists experiencing multilingualism from a personal vantage point, they were aware that the then-mainstream trend in linguistics to study monolingual behavior produced only part of the story. Fishman, for example, famously defined a heritage language (in the context of the United States) in his plenary to the first National Heritage Language Conference as “a language of personal relevance other than English” (Fishman, 1999 cited in Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003: 216). Crucial, also, to the field of heritage linguistics, is the unequal status of the heritage variety in the multilingual setting. These special issues follow Rothman’s (2009: 165) definition of a heritage language as “a language spoken at home or otherwise readily available to young children, and crucially this language is not a dominant language of the larger (national) society.” The social context of heritage languages as minority languages is necessary to understanding the limited social domains where heritage languages may be acquired, used, and maintained. In terms of a more generative approach, Rothman (2009: 165) further adds that “the heritage language is acquired on the basis of an interaction with naturalistic input and whatever in-born linguistic mechanisms are at play in any instances of child language acquisition.” As a naturally acquired language—that is, one without institutional support or formal instruction—heritage speakers are often times not literate in the heritage variety (Benmamoun et al., 2013); and in terms of language use over time, especially in contemporary heritage communities, heritage speakers “attain a high degree of fluency in a(n) [socially-dominant] L2, so much so that it becomes their dominant language throughout the remainder of their life” (Putnam and Sánchez, 2013: 478). Thus, the field of heritage linguistics must concern itself with both formal approaches to language acquisition and use, as well as with the particular social and sociolinguistic situation in which speakers find themselves. Beyond the broad characterization of heritage languages by the sociolinguistic environment, (Rothman, 2009; Aalberse and Hulk, 2016), individual sociolinguistic situations are often vastly different. Some heritage languages are moribund and do not (or no longer) receive additional waves of immigrants; others receive new immigrant populations resulting in cyclical multilingualism, like Spanish in the United States; and still others are minority languages that are maintained in spite of no continuing immigration, e.g., Yiddish among the Hasidim, or Pennsylvania Dutch among most Old Order Amish and many Old Order Mennonites. And of course, these language-specific sociolinguistic contexts change over time. While individual cases vary, heritage languages are essentially a category of minority language spoken by bilingual speakers, who navigate their linguistic and cultural identity over time, and across the lifespan.

Given the social setting of acquisition, and patterns of use within a multilingual community, heritage languages pose new questions to both sociolinguistic and formal approaches. Ongoing discussion—and debate—has centered on methodological approaches and theoretical assumptions in this field of study. For example, recent research on heritage languages challenges long-held ideas of language acquisition that were predominant under a monolingual bias (Page and Putnam, 2015: 4). Such approaches recognize that heritage speakers differ from monolingual speakers (or L2 learners), in that heritage speakers are early bilinguals who acquire both the heritage language and the socially-dominant L2 at an early age. From the perspectives of both language acquisition and language processing, the study of heritage linguistics must be able to differentiate between the aspects of a heritage language that were acquired naturally in childhood from multiple input varieties versus heritage language data that exhibit cross-linguistic transfer between two simultaneously active grammars, especially as an individual’s dominant language may change over their lifespan. Additionally, within heritage language research new trajectories are being explored with regards to viewing heritage language situations as resulting in incomplete acquisition (Montrul, 2008, 2016; see Putnam and Sánchez, 2013, for counterargument) and quantitative and qualitative differences in input (Rothman, 2007). Such approaches note that bilingual acquisition—especially sequential acquisition of the heritage language and the socially-dominant L2—may slow, or even inhibit or interrupt the acquisition of the heritage variety. Late-acquired grammatical structures—especially those (fully) acquired after the age of six, when students start formal instruction at English-dominant schools—have been shown to be more susceptible to language change, as the introduction of and shift towards the socially-dominant L2 reduces frequency and quality of input from the heritage variety; frequency of use of the heritage language, and social domains in which the heritage variety is spoken, are likewise reduced. Because of the combination of a specific social context and bilingualism of heritage speakers, these communities have been studied not only for what can be learned about bilingualism (Grosjean, 2008; Matras, 2009), but also about what can be learned about any grammatical structure, from speakers whose heritage speaker status does not fit with discrete categories as L1 or L2 speakers (Benmamoun et al., 2013).

Perhaps the recent challenges from heritage language research to long-held notions of grammar acquisition are themselves a challenge to the monolingual emphasis (perhaps, bias) of Western societies (Auer and Wei, 2007: 1). Of social importance is Anderson’s (1983) idea of “imagined communities,” which posits that national identities are located in language and that one language equals one nation (cited in Zentella, 1997: 72). Often the pre-migration ecologies of heritage speakers are not discussed (Martin, 2007: 495)—a fact that is particularly important when considering linguistic and cultural contact in the American context. Moreover, the term “heritage speaker” implies a focus on the pasts of these speakers (Baker and Jones, 1998: 509). To understand the heritage language situations, linguists need to figure in the entire ecology of the situation, as seen from both social and diachronic perspectives. Wilkerson and Salmons’ (2008) study, for instance, provides evidence that two or more generations of so-called good old immigrants of yesteryear did not learn English, but instead maintained German cultural and linguistic domains within the larger, English-speaking American community. Explicit parallels are drawn to modern day patterns of immigration from the Spanish-speaking world. These and other studies provide empirical evidence against commonly held (mis-)conceptions of cultural and linguistic assimilation, both in terms of revisionist visions of the past, and in relation to nativist movements past, present and future. The contributions in this special issue advance both theoretical, structural, and sociolinguistic perspectives of heritage language research. Importantly, they provide rich discussion in the field of language contact studies.

The articles in this first special issue have very different sociolinguistic contexts. Kühl and Peterson’s article shares the last vestiges of Danish in Utah and especially its postvernacular use, i.e., what happens to heritage languages after the language itself has shifted and speech community members no longer productively use it in a multilingual setting. Their research reveals how gender and networks figure into the remaining uses of Danish. Importantly, they speak to the future of heritage languages in a postvernacular stage—what happens when the heritage language is (nearly) gone. Oksana Laleko’s article on grammatical gender assignment among heritage Russian speakers shows the potential difficulty in determining grammatical gender at the syntax-discourse interface in using lexical, morphological, and discourse-referential cues. Anna Mikhaylova’s article, while also focusing on Russian heritage speakers, investigates the functional morphology of verbal aspect. Both studies show areas of the grammar, which are realized differently for heritage speakers than monolinguals. Both studies show how integral heritage language research is to understanding linguistic phenomena beyond a monolingual bias. Joo, Schwarz, and Page’s article on Moundridge Schweitzer German heritage speakers analyzes both their heritage language German and their English in light of the cot-caught merger. Their study examines the stability of the phonological system in a language contact situation. Raña-Risso and Barrera-Tobón’s article examines first and second generation Spanish-English bilinguals in New York City. Second generation speakers have more rigid word order with subjects in the preverbal position; they address input as being a reason for more overt pronouns and more preverbal subjects. Brown and Carpenter’s article examines a non-Western heritage language in a rural setting in the upper Midwest. Somali speakers are examined in terms of their identities and how the heritage language functions within their community.

In all, the contributions here present not only varied sociolinguistic situations and varied stages of language maintenance and shift, they also present differently held stances on the study of heritage languages. To this end, the contributions show the pre-eminent role of social context in bilingual, heritage communities, as it relates to language change and language shift.

In the broader context of linguistics as a field, these articles further the discussion on the methodological and theoretical areas where heritage languages are concerned. They also urge generative theory to consider the desiderata specific to language acquisition, use, and change in the heritage language context, which cannot be accounted for using a wholesale adaptation of extant monolingual or L1/L2 bilingual models. The contributions in these special issues challenge aspects of traditional models, test theoretical expectations with data gleaned in North American contexts, and explore new trends in the field.

We are grateful to several colleagues for their comments on this introduction and encouragement for both issues: Angela Hoffman, Janne Bondi Johannessen, Joseph Salmons, Karoline Kühl, Marcela Depiante, Michael Putnam, Richard Page, and Robert Nicolaï.

References

  • Aalberse Suzanne and Hulk Aafke . 2016. Introduction to the special Issue—Heritage language studies and early child bilingualism research: Understanding the connection. International Journal of Bilingualism: 16.

  • Anderson Benedict . 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

  • Auer Peter and Wei Li . 2007. Introduction: Multilingualism as a problem? Monolingualism as a problem? In Auer Peter and Wei Li (eds.) Handbook of Multilingualism and Multilingual Communication112. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Baker Colin and Jones Sylvia Prys . 1998. Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

  • Benmamoun Elabbas Montrul Silvina and Polinsky Maria . 2013. Heritage languages and their speakers: Opportunities and challenges for linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 39(3–4): 129181.

  • Fishman Joshua A. 1999. Three Centuries of Heritage Language Education in the United States. Plenary Address given at the First National Heritage Language Conference Long Beach ca.

  • Grosjean François . 2008. Studying Bilinguals . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Haugen Einar . 1953. The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Johannessen Janne Bondi and Salmons Joseph C. (eds.). 2012. Norsk i Amerika. Special issue of Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift / Norwegian Linguistics Journal 30(2).

  • Johannessen Janne Bondi and Salmons Joseph C. (eds.). 2015. Germanic Heritage Languages in North America: Acquisition Attrition and Change (Studies in Language Variation 18). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Martin Peter . 2007. Multilingualism of new minorities (in migratory contexts). In Auer Peter and Wei Li (eds.) Handbook of Multilingualism and Multilingual Communication493507. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Matras Yaron . 2009. Language Contact . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Montrul Silvina A. 2008. Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism: Re-examining the Age Factor. Studies in Bilingualism Vol. 39. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Montrul Silvina A. 2016. The Acquitition of Heritage Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Page B. Richard and Michael T. Putnam . 2015. Researching Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages: Theoretical and Empirical Challenges and Rewards. In B. Richard Page and Putnam Michael T. (eds.) Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages in North America: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Findings111. Leiden: Brill.

  • Page B. Richard and Putnam Michael T. . 2015. Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages in North America (Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory 8). Leiden: Brill.

  • Putnam Michael T. and Sánchez Liliana . 2013. What’s so incomplete about incomplete acquisition? A prolegomenon to modeling heritage language grammars. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 3(4): 478508.

  • Rothman Jason . 2007. Heritage speaker competence differences, language change, and input type: Inflected infinitives in heritage Brazilian Portuguese. International Journal of Bilingualism 13: 155163.

  • Rothman Jason . 2009. Understanding the nature and outcomes of early bilingualism: Romance languages as heritage languages. International Journal of Bilingualism 13(2): 155163.

  • Van Deusen-Scholl Nelleke . 2003. Toward a definition of heritage language: Sociopolitical and pedagogical considerations. Journal of Languages Identity and Education 2(3): 211230.

  • Weinreich Uriel Labov William and Herzog Martin I. . 1968. Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change. In Lehmann Winfred P. and Malkiel Yakov (eds.) Directions for Historical Linguistics95 195. Austin tx: University of Texas Press.

  • Wilkerson Miranda and Salmons Joseph C. . 2008. Good old immigrants of yesteryear who didn’t learn English: German in Wisconsin. American Speech 83(3): 259283.

  • Zentella Ana Celia . 1997. The hispanophobia of the Offical English Movement in the us. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 127: 7186.

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Heritage Languages in North America: Sociolinguistic Approaches

in Journal of Language Contact

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References

Aalberse Suzanne and Hulk Aafke . 2016. Introduction to the special Issue—Heritage language studies and early child bilingualism research: Understanding the connection. International Journal of Bilingualism: 16.

Anderson Benedict . 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Auer Peter and Wei Li . 2007. Introduction: Multilingualism as a problem? Monolingualism as a problem? In Auer Peter and Wei Li (eds.) Handbook of Multilingualism and Multilingual Communication112. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Baker Colin and Jones Sylvia Prys . 1998. Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Benmamoun Elabbas Montrul Silvina and Polinsky Maria . 2013. Heritage languages and their speakers: Opportunities and challenges for linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 39(3–4): 129181.

Fishman Joshua A. 1999. Three Centuries of Heritage Language Education in the United States. Plenary Address given at the First National Heritage Language Conference Long Beach ca.

Grosjean François . 2008. Studying Bilinguals . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haugen Einar . 1953. The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Johannessen Janne Bondi and Salmons Joseph C. (eds.). 2012. Norsk i Amerika. Special issue of Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift / Norwegian Linguistics Journal 30(2).

Johannessen Janne Bondi and Salmons Joseph C. (eds.). 2015. Germanic Heritage Languages in North America: Acquisition Attrition and Change (Studies in Language Variation 18). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Martin Peter . 2007. Multilingualism of new minorities (in migratory contexts). In Auer Peter and Wei Li (eds.) Handbook of Multilingualism and Multilingual Communication493507. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Matras Yaron . 2009. Language Contact . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Montrul Silvina A. 2008. Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism: Re-examining the Age Factor. Studies in Bilingualism Vol. 39. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Montrul Silvina A. 2016. The Acquitition of Heritage Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Page B. Richard and Michael T. Putnam . 2015. Researching Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages: Theoretical and Empirical Challenges and Rewards. In B. Richard Page and Putnam Michael T. (eds.) Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages in North America: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Findings111. Leiden: Brill.

Page B. Richard and Putnam Michael T. . 2015. Moribund Germanic Heritage Languages in North America (Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory 8). Leiden: Brill.

Putnam Michael T. and Sánchez Liliana . 2013. What’s so incomplete about incomplete acquisition? A prolegomenon to modeling heritage language grammars. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 3(4): 478508.

Rothman Jason . 2007. Heritage speaker competence differences, language change, and input type: Inflected infinitives in heritage Brazilian Portuguese. International Journal of Bilingualism 13: 155163.

Rothman Jason . 2009. Understanding the nature and outcomes of early bilingualism: Romance languages as heritage languages. International Journal of Bilingualism 13(2): 155163.

Van Deusen-Scholl Nelleke . 2003. Toward a definition of heritage language: Sociopolitical and pedagogical considerations. Journal of Languages Identity and Education 2(3): 211230.

Weinreich Uriel Labov William and Herzog Martin I. . 1968. Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change. In Lehmann Winfred P. and Malkiel Yakov (eds.) Directions for Historical Linguistics95 195. Austin tx: University of Texas Press.

Wilkerson Miranda and Salmons Joseph C. . 2008. Good old immigrants of yesteryear who didn’t learn English: German in Wisconsin. American Speech 83(3): 259283.

Zentella Ana Celia . 1997. The hispanophobia of the Offical English Movement in the us. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 127: 7186.

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