- Heritage languages and their speakers by Maria Polinsky
In spite of the fact that bilinguals and multilinguals make up the majority of Earth's population, it is only a relatively recent phenomenon that being bilingual has been viewed as a positive trait, both from a societal standpoint (Pavlenko 2013) and with regard to potential cognitive advantages (Bialystok et al. 2012). This reevaluation of bilingualism has led to an upsurge in research from multiple perspectives. This growing body of research has advanced our understanding of bilingualism a priori, presenting overwhelming evidence for the integrated nature of bilingual grammar [End Page 210] and cognition (see e.g. Putnam et al. 2018 for a review of this literature). Still, even within linguistics and language sciences, a common assumption in this research is that the grammar of bilinguals—and, in particular, late bilinguals—is, as Ortega (2014) terms it, deficit-oriented when compared with monolingual or baseline standards. Under such a view, naturally produced language or responses to experimental stimuli are collected, analyzed, and compared with target outputs, focusing on differences that are often labeled as competence or production deficits of one of the source grammars. A more realistic picture of the development of bilingual grammars over the course of the lifespan is one that is dynamic, with certain elements becoming more stable at different time scales (Ortega 2014, 2016, de Bot 2016). In her monograph Heritage languages and their speakers, Maria Polinsky homes in on a particular subclass of bilinguals and their linguistic knowledge, namely unbalanced bilinguals (a.k.a. 'heritage language speakers'). This volume represents an exhaustive overview of the current state of the field of research on heritage languages, set forth by one of the world's leading researchers on said topic.
If (bilingual) grammars are indeed dynamic, the degree to which they exhibit divergence from purported norms has also been shown to be highly restrictive. In other words, much like initial research on L2 grammars from a generative perspective (see e.g. White 2003 for a review), the changes underway—as well as those that have already taken hold—are highly restrictive, targeting some domains of grammar more than others and adhering to a finite set of observable patterns. Not only are bilingual grammars dynamic entities, but the very classification of bilinguals is also dynamic, since individuals with diverse and variable proficiencies in two (or more) grammars are defined as bilinguals. Heritage languages represent an important missing piece to this complex puzzle. P adopts a generalist, ecumenical tone throughout this book, discussing a range of topics, from more-established positions to those that are more controversial and speculative at this current time. She successfully addresses a somewhat controversial topic, that is, the study of grammars that, on occasion, significantly diverge from monolingual and baseline standards; she shows throughout the book that rather than viewing these grammars and the individuals who speak them through a deficit-oriented lens, one should understand these grammars to display a remarkable degree of complexity and high-functionality throughout the lives of the individuals who speak them.1 As I elaborate upon further in this review, perhaps the most impressive and equally important contribution of this volume is found in its forward-thinking nature, illuminating a path toward productive research that not only contributes to advancing our knowledge of heritage language grammars, but also has the lofty goal of achieving a more nuanced understanding of the general cognitive architecture underlying the faculty of language in both monolingual and bilingual populations.
This monograph consists of eight chapters, each dedicated to a particular area of research germane to the study of heritage languages. The first chapter exposes the immediate challenge of arriving at a core set of characteristics that define who is and who is not a heritage speaker. The book begins with Bloomfield's (1927) assessment of various speakers' abilities in the Algonquian language Menominee. In his remarks, Bloomfield makes the distinction between 'good' and 'bad' speakers of Menominee, with those deemed to be 'bad' speakers...