Understanding heritage languages

Maria Polinsky and Gregory Scontras

With a growing interest in heritage languages from researchers of bilingualism and linguistic theory, the field of heritage-language studies has begun to build on its empirical foundations, moving toward a deeper understanding of the nature of language competence under unbalanced bilingualism. In furtherance of this trend, the current work synthesizes pertinent empirical observations and theoretical claims about vulnerable and robust areas of heritage language competence into early steps toward a model of heritage-language grammar. We highlight two key triggers for deviation from the relevant baseline: the quantity and quality of the input from which the heritage grammar is acquired, and the economy of online resources when operating in a less dominant language. In response to these triggers, we identify three outcomes of deviation in the heritage grammar: an avoidance of ambiguity, a resistance to irregularity, and a shrinking of structure. While we are still a ways away from a level of understanding that allows us to predict those aspects of heritage grammar that will be robust and those that will deviate from the relevant baselines, our hope is that the current work will spur the continued development of a predictive model of heritage language competence.