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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Shout out to your mother tongue

Harvard heritage speaker expert gives presentation at Brandeis

Published: November 30, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

“What does it mean to be a native speaker, especially when you did not fully learn your first language?” This was one of the many questions Harvard University professor Maria Polinsky attempted to answer in her presentation on heritage speakers Thursday.

Heritage speaker is a term used to describe persons who generally grew up learning one language (usually spoken in the home) and then switched to the native language of the region they reside in.

For example, the Brandeis community boasts many heritage speakers who grew up speaking Russian at home but then learned English when they started preschool.

What differentiates heritage speakers from native speakers or even bilinguals is that they never fully learn their heritage language. Many heritage speakers, if their heritage language uses a different writing system or alphabet than the one they learn later, do not know how to read and write in their heritage language.

Polinsky discussed what it means to be a heritage speaker as well as different theories surrounding this unique linguistic group.

Some of these theories included the Null Hypothesis, which compares the heritage speaker’s grasp of the language to that of a native child speaker. The hypothesis asserts that the development of the heritage language is “fossilized” at the age the heritage speaker commences learning the regional language thus causing the heritage speaker to use the same grammar and vocabulary that would be expected of a child native speaker.

Polinsky has conducted numerous studies on heritage speakers at her Polinsky Language Lab at Harvard. These studies indicate that the Null hypothesis is most likely incorrect.

Polinsky is also looking into whether heritage languages are more similar to the actual language or to each other. There is a concept in linguistics of a universal language, which is the basic template for language every person is equipped with.

These types of studies are important because heritage speakers are still largely misunderstood. Many are looked down upon by actual speakers of their heritage language.

Heritage speakers are not uncommon though. About one-third of American college students are heritage speakers and though the most common heritage languages are shifting, the population of heritage speakers in general is remaining stable.

Polinsky’s research is turning over a previously untouched stone in the world of linguistics. Heritage speakers are an especially interesting group because their circumstances are so different from native speakers as well as bilinguals.

The final Linguistic Speakers Series talk of the semester will be a discussion of morphology-phonology interaction, conducted by Donna Steriade of MIT on Thursday, December 6 at 3 pm in Volen.