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Heritage Languages in North America: Formal Linguistic Approaches

In: Journal of Language Contact
Authors:
Joshua Bousquette University of Georgia, bousquet@uga.edu

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Joshua R. Brown University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, brownjo@uwec.edu

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Open Access

This special issue of the Journal of Language Contact is the second of two focused on heritage languages in North America. As noted in the introduction to that previous collection, the study of heritage languages requires different theoretical and empirical approaches than the study of monolingual populations. At the same time, traditional L1/L2 models of language acquisition and use—especially over the lifespan—do not directly map onto the specific patterns of acquisition and use in a heritage language community. As such, the study of heritage languages requires researchers to adopt or adapt previous models of study to fit the social context and bilingual environment characteristic of heritage language communities, and these studies consequently yield valuable insights into the form and function of generative grammar not otherwise discernable from the study of other populations (Benmamoun et al., 2013a; b). Specifically, the study of heritage language grammars must consider:

  1. the role of English in the acquisition of the heritage variety, and its use in specific social domains, and over the lifespan of the individual;
  2. the role of the pre-immigration input variety—or varieties—in affecting the formation of a heritage variety, with respect to both the first (founder) generation of immigrants, as well as subsequent generations;
  3. the role of the monolingual standard of the homeland, either through continued (socio)linguistic contact with the homeland, or through oral communication or printed materials, e.g., through educational or religious institutions;
  4. typological patterns of language acquisition and change in bilingual or language contact settings;
  5. and the change in patterns of language use over the lifespan, as monolingual heritage speaker children often become English-dominant adults.

As the second of two sequential special issues in the Journal of Language Contact on this topic, this volume also seeks to further the process of refining our methods and sharing our insights on heritage language grammars, specific to the context of language contact studies. Building on the sociolinguistic focus of the previous collection, the current volume focuses on formal linguistic approaches to the study of heritage language grammar, within that same social context. This distinction is in some ways akin to the parable of the blind men and an elephant, in that the study of heritage grammar—or arguably, of language more generally—is inseparable from its social context. As Jespersen notes in one of his discourses on Saussure’s langue and parole, “[T]he particular man is only what he is, and his language is only what it is, in virtue of his life in the community, and the community only exists in and in virtue of the particular beings who together constitute it” (Jespersen, 1946: 3). The focus in this volume on formal approaches to linguistics seeks to explore the effects of this particular social context on the grammar of heritage speakers.

A heritage language is defined predominantly by its social context, being a language that is acquired as an L1 in the home through naturalistic means (Rothman, 2009); crucially, the language spoken in the home is not the socially dominant language of the community at large, and often times, speakers become dominant in the L2 as adults (Putnam and Sánchez, 2013). Here, however, we shift our focus from the social context to focus more explicitly on formal approaches to linguistic inquiry in heritage communities, both in terms of the study of language acquisition, as well as the role of multilingualism, and the directionality of linguistic transfer. As relates to the former: either through limitations during acquisition, or through reduced input and frequency of activation in adulthood, heritage speakers may evidence lower degrees of (performance) proficiency in the heritage variety over the lifespan (e.g., Montrul, 2008). Pascual y Cabo and Rothman (2012), however, have challenged the notion of incomplete acquisition in that it “idealizes” the input for heritage language speakers. Additional research has argued that features of the heritage grammar remain “entrenched” to such a degree that they are unaffected by language contact, even despite reduced frequency of contact and activation (Schmid, 2010). In terms of multilingualism, contributions here follow proposals from Grosjean (e.g., 1982; 2008) and others, that bilinguals are not to be viewed as having two monolingual grammars; the same is here assumed for heritage speakers, as they comprise a particular, sociolinguistically-defined bilingual community. Moreover, not only does the heritage language face contact-induced change; change in a heritage language situation is bi/multidirectional (Schmid and Köpke, 2007). The contact between the two (or more) languages available to the heritage language speaker presents a wide array of research questions on acquisition, contact, and attrition. Ongoing and future research on heritage grammars must therefore grapple with a variety of questions related to language acquisition and change, because of the particular social and multi-lingual context of heritage language communities.

In order to document, describe, and analyze the grammars of individual communities, a number of collaborative research teams have established lab groups and created extensive corpora. In addition to individual fieldwork exposures and short-term projects, multi-year and ongoing projects seek to establish larger and more comprehensive corpora. These projects yield broader synchronic and deeper diachronic views of language acquisition, use, and change in heritage communities. Some of these projects include: The Corpus of American Norwegian Speech (CANS, see Johannessen, 2015), The North American German Dialect Archive (NAGDA) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Danish Voices in the Americas (Danske stemmer i USA og Argentina) at the University of Copenhagen, Kontaktdeutsch at Penn State University, the Linguistic Atlas of Kansas German Dialects (LAKGD) at the University of Kansas, the Texas German Dialect Project and Archive at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Center for Multilingualism in Society Across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo. These independent projects do not exist in a vacuum, and share three common characteristics: 1) that they generate corpora for linguistic analysis, which requires both methodological consideration as well as language documentation, 2) that they analyze contemporary and historical varieties of the heritage language to contribute to the collective understanding of heritage languages, and 3) that they make not only their findings and conclusions, but also their corpora available to both academics and also to interested members of the non-academic community. These projects are, by necessity, administered and executed by large, collaborative teams of researchers, often coordinating across institutions, and over a period of years. In addition to collecting and making available a number of crucial, historical, pre-digital recordings by Haugen (1953), Seifert (1948–49), Gilbert (1960s, see Gilbert, 1972), Eichhoff (1968), Hjelde (1986–1987, see Hjelde, 1992) and others, these corpora serve as a platform for current and future field workers to contribute to a growing body of heritage language data.

The contributions to this current volume engage with the structural and formal aspects of grammar in bilingual heritage language communities, and how the heritage grammars are affected by contact between the heritage variety and the socially-dominant language. Arnbjörnsdóttir, Thráinsson, and Nowenstein present data on the status of verb second (V2) in North American Icelandic, and find that subject initial V2 is more robustly maintained than in clauses with a topicalized element. They conclude that V2 violations obtain from language contact with English, and additionally suggest that both types of clauses be treated as separate clause types. Kühl and Petersen's contribution also treats the maintenance of V2, albeit in American Danish. They report both a maintenance of and divergence from the Standard Danish V2, with variation within the heritage community resulting from the relative openness and integration of the Danish community, contra the religious, geographic, or social isolation—or independence—common in heritage communities. Johannessen and Larsson present data on gender in Heritage Scandinavian, concluding that gender as a grammatical category remains stable, but that there is some evidence that speakers are moving from a three gender to a two gender system, due to koinéization. The last contribution on a Scandinavian heritage variety in this volume, Riksem presents data on code switching in American Norwegian. She employs an exoskeletal model for the integration of English items with Norwegian functional morphemes. Riksem argues that the exoskeletal model employed accounts for code switching data in this heritage community more accurately than previous theoretical models, and does so without additional mechanisms specific to bilingual contexts. Shifting to data on West Germanic, Bousquette investigates high (NP1) and low (NP2) agreement in Wisconsin Heritage German, finding a higher frequency of English NP1 typology in the heritage variety among speakers with complementizer agreement (C-agr), due to the similarly high locus of agreement in C-agr structures. These findings suggest that superficially English-like data may, in fact, reflect inherited patterns from the heritage grammar. In her study of verb clusters in Moundridge Schweitzer German, spoken in Kansas, Joo argues that the prevalence of non-standard verb clusters in the heritage variety reflects a maintenance of pre-immigration dialectal syntax. Judy, Putnam and Rothman also report on Moundridge Schweitzer German, comparing switch reference in this community to the same phenomenon in L2 Spanish. Their data suggest that age of onset of acquisition was not a factor in completion or difficulty of the switch reference task, and that both communities exhibit general effects of bilingualism, and the inherent difficulty presented by a task with high cognitive load.

This work joins with other recent work, building on the foundational description of a grammar as the relationship between the ideal speaker-hearer (e.g., Chomsky, 1965), to consider data that is often times gradient rather than binary, and is characterized by both inter- and intra-speaker variation. Drawing meaningful and generalizable conclusions therefore requires such large corpora—in addition to directed tasks and protocols—to derive a representational sketch of the heritage grammar, and to draw empirical, falsifiable conclusions about not only the contemporary situation of what is often times the last generation of speakers in many cases, but also about the grammatical changes over time in these communities. The study of heritage languages is simultaneously a series of case studies in the immigrant experience in the Americas, and a cross-linguistic, generalizable study in multilingualism and language contact phenomena. As the field and its methods move forward in the study of heritage communities in such language contact situations, it is imperative for our understanding of multilingualism that we can unambiguously distinguish between grammatical elements that reflect the pre-immigration input variety, influence of the (continental) monolingual standard, influence of English, or emergent/typological characteristics of languages in contact. In this way, and as a reflection of the modernization of American communities over the last 150 years, the field of heritage linguistics and its methodologies are moving away from a more traditional view of language islands, and moving towards the more multi-dimensional, comprehensive view of linguistic corpora, as employed in historical textual corpora, European dialectology, (Indo-European) historical linguistics, and pidgin/creole genesis. With the use of both traditional fieldwork methods and newer, technological tools, we are reminded of both the debt we owe to previous researchers, and also of the work that is yet to be done. We hope that these volumes encourage continued rigor in the field of heritage language study.

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