Keynote Speaker Maria Polinsky

Learning from heritage languages

Maria Polinsky

Harvard University

One of the main points I make in this talk is that now that we have learned a fair amount about heritage languages time has come for linguists to learn from them about the overall design of natural language.  Both linguistic theorizing and experimental studies of language development rest heavily on the notion of the adult, perhaps linguistically stable, native speaker. Native speaker competence and use are typically the result of normal first language acquisition in a predominant monolingual environment, with optimal and continuous exposure to the language. In this talk, I discuss the case of heritage speakers, i.e., bilingual speakers of an ethnic or immigrant minority language whose first language does not typically reach native-like attainment in adulthood. I present an overview of heritage speakers’ linguistic system and discuss several competing factors that shape this system in adulthood. The examination of the linguistic knowledge of heritage speakers allows us to question long-held ideas about the stability of language before the so called critical period for language development, and the nature of the linguistic system developing under reduced input conditions.