- The acquisition of heritage languages by Silvina Montrul
Silvina Montrul, a prominent scholar and voice in the field of heritage language acquisition, has published a new book that successfully positions the study of heritage languages in the mainstream as well as in the crossroads between subdisciplines in language science and applied studies. M accomplishes this task by providing the reader with a synthesis and analysis of cross-disciplinary research that has paved the way to a deeper understanding of the theoretical and empirical issues pertinent to the bilingual experience of heritage speakers. Her central claim in this book is that heritage languages are indeed native languages, but in a bilingual environment, which leads to divergent developmental patterns and outcomes in comparison to the experience of monolingual native speakers. Further, this experience is complicated by the nonuniformity of developmental profiles among individuals, which in conjunction with distinct grammatical properties lead to various degrees of linguistic knowledge and performance in the heritage language. As such, The acquisition of heritage languages seeks to provide evidence for these claims through an overview of twenty years of scholarly work summarized in nine chapters.
The introductory chapter (Ch. 1, ‘Introduction’) lays out the foundation for the premise of the book and a particular argument against perceiving the field of heritage languages as atheoretical. Rather, the field has benefited from theoretical claims from other linguistic subfields, and relevant comparisons can be made between heritage languages and first and second languages. In Ch. 2 (‘Heritage languages and heritage speakers’), M argues that defining who qualifies as a heritage speaker is rather complex, and she elaborates on all of the factors that characterize a variety of heritage speaker profiles. Ch. 3 (‘The language of heritage speakers’) summarizes common patterns observed across heritage languages and contexts in different linguistic domains such as lexis, syntax, phonology, and phonetics. Proficiency levels among heritage bilingual speakers are quite variable, and Ch. 4 (‘The bilingual development of heritage speakers’) examines the individual learner factors and experiences (e.g. quantity and quality of input) that lead to the vast differences often observed in heritage speakers’ linguistic knowledge. In Ch. 5 (‘Theoretical approaches’), M discusses the contention that the field of heritage language acquisition ought to be grounded within contemporary theories of language, with particular attention to a multilingual perspective. The subsequent chapter (Ch. 6, ‘Methodological considerations’) focuses on current practices and issues regarding research methods employed across heritage language empirical studies, including a critical section on determining a baseline for comparison purposes. Ch. 7 (‘How native are heritage speakers?’) addresses differences and similarities between heritage speakers and monolingual native speakers across linguistic domains, and, most importantly, M provides reasons that may account for these differences. Ch. 8 (‘Are heritage speakers like second language learners?’) makes comparisons between heritage and second language learners by taking into account theoretical issues that have been pertinent to adult second language acquisition. M ends the book with a chapter on how heritage language research can inform theoretical claims in language science, teaching and curriculum design in language education, and language policies (Ch. 9, ‘Some implications’).
This book is a mandatory read for new and seasoned scholars in the field of heritage language acquisition, as it provides the reader with a synthesis of theoretical and empirical knowledge relevant to researchers and practitioners who work with heritage language bilinguals. While the book makes several contributions, I highlight here two specific issues that are critical as the field [End Page 223] moves forward. One is validating the key contributions heritage language research has made to an array of theoretical positions regarding language science. While scholars have argued for a theory of heritage language acquisition (e.g. Lynch 2003), M provides a compelling argument for adapting existing theories of language (e.g. universal grammar, emergentism, variationist sociolinguistics); these theories can contribute to as well as benefit from data from heritage language studies. This symbiotic relationship would further elucidate inquiries into the nature of language acquisition. However, whether the field needs to develop its own theory of heritage...