HL2C-SLLAT Seminar: Maria Polinsky (Maryland)

Thursday 3 November 2022, 5:00pm to 6:00pm


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Event Details

HL2C-SLLAT Seminar: Maria Polinsky (Maryland)

Title: Heritage languages and endangered languages: Point and counterpoint

Presenter(s): Maria Polinsky (Maryland)

How to join: The seminars are free to attend. Simply sign up to the HL2C Mailing List or to the SLLAT mailing list to receive the link to join us via Microsoft Teams link. You do not need a Teams account to access the talk.

About: This is a joint event, co-organized by the Heritage Language 2 Consortium (HL2C) and the Second Language Learning and Teaching (SLLAT) Research Group.


In this talk, I investigate the link between immigrant heritage languages (HLs) and indigenous endangered languages (Els). Despite some recent observations, this link has not yet been investigated in a systematic and extensive way. Focusing on parallels between HLs and ELs will allow us to conduct more inclusive research on endangered languages thus maximizing documentation efforts necessary for language maintenance and revitalization efforts as well as advancing linguistic theory.

From a socio-cultural perspective, HLs are languages spoken by minority populations in places where other ambient languages are spoken, usually as a result of migration. HL speakers first acquire their HL in a natural setting. Then, in an early stage, such as upon entering an institutional setting, their input from the HL stops or is considerably reduced, and the ambient language may become dominant. This socio-cultural situation, in most scenarios, gives rise to different types of bi- or multilingualism (balanced vs. unbalanced) and language change (core vs. superficial properties). While researchers are still investigating the precise conditions that give rise to varying language competence, there are some factors that continue to be implicated: age of intensified exposure to the ambient language, continued exposure to the ancestral language and socio-political dynamic between the two languages. In research on HLs, the language of the baseline and homeland language constitute the basis of comparison that allows us to assess structural changes in the corresponding HLs.

Indigenous ELs, languages that are not robustly transmitted to younger generations, share important characteristics with immigrant HLs (Sasse 1992): (i) the switch from early and naturalistic immersion in the ancestral language to takeover by the ambient language, e.g., in the context of Residential Schools in Canada or the USA, and (ii) the presence of socio-economic power associated with the ambient language. In both immigrant HL and indigenous EL settings, this socio-cultural dynamic gives rise to a range of bilingual outcomes. However, unlike HLs, there is no baseline because the traditional language is lost. Thus, identifying structural properties that arise due to extensive bilingualism leads to a better analysis of the current state of ELs. This is where comparisons to HLs are particularly fruitful and effective.

Recently, Polinsky (2018) and Davis & Huijsmans (2017) have made the connection between the two subfields and proposed to exchange findings and methodologies. However, given the existence of important differences between immigrant HLs and indigenous Els, the parallels cannot be taken for granted. First, the language assimilation in immigrant HLs is mostly driven by socio-economic factors while in many indigenous Els it is coerced. Second, the immigrant HL speakers are not usually “responsible” for the future of their ancestral languages; there exists a homeland variety which continues to be passed on to the younger generations. In contrast, indigenous EL speakers play a crucial role in the transmission of their ancestral language. In sum, while the link between HL and EL is apparent, research needs to empirically verify which observations can be replicated across the subfields and which cannot. Both outcomes are informative as to the nature of language acquisition, change and maintenance.


Contact Details

Name Patrick Rebuschat




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