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Review of  Heritage Languages

Reviewer: Tyler Kimball Anderson
Book Title: Heritage Languages
Book Author: Suzanne Aalberse Ad Backus Pieter Muysken
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 31.3392

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Aalberse, Backus & Muysken’s book Heritage languages: A language contact approach delves into the world of heritage languages and how these inform and are informed by studies in language contact. Taking a global perspective, it amply references studies from many contact situations around the world. The authors use their combined decades of experience in the field of contact linguistics to address a wide variety of interrelated themes from complimentary areas of expertise.

In addition to providing an overview of the book, in Chapter 1 the concept of ‘heritage language’ is defined. Here, differing definitions from previous researchers are presented, based on differing views of language contact. Included in this discussion are six questions to aid in defining heritage languages (HL). The authors begin with the status (official vs. unofficial) of the language in the community, and then turn to the concept of shift in language dominance and proficiency. The polemic inclusion of divergence from monolingual native norms in the grammars of HL speakers is then treated. Concentrating on the definition of ‘heritage’, the topic then shifts to cultural connections to the language. The setting and timing of acquisition is then mentioned, focusing on age of onset and naturalistic acquisition settings. Finally, with regard to the differing definitions, they turn to sociolinguistics and the concept of language community. Also contained in this introductory chapter is the potential use of ‘contact scenarios’ in studying HLs and how these can aid in understanding language contact and predicting language contact outcomes.

Chapter 2 shifts the topic to two perspectives that have historically been used in HL studies, including the perspective of diaspora languages. In connection with this discussion, the authors provide examples of various languages in such a setting, with examples primarily from Dutch. Also covered is the perspective of the receiving country of immigration, with special attention on the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. The chapter concludes with a brief introduction to the study of HLs from the speaker perspective, which will be the main focus taken in this book.

With a desire to place HLs in their social context, Chapter 3 centers on the interrelated concepts of language maintenance and language shift, where the authors return to the scenario approach. These specific scenarios align the discussion with social factors that impact language maintenance and language choice. Here the reader encounters factors related to language maintenance such as interlocutors, generation of the speakers, family language use, social networks, and communities of practice. To conclude this subject, the authors focus on language shift and the endpoint of language death. The authors then transition to Chapter 4 by briefly treating when language choice is not so clear, homing in on bilingual language use. Here various forms of codeswitching—from lexical insertions to alternations—are exemplified, with numerous samples from Dutch and Turkish bilinguals being provided. The concept of languaging is also presented, where they note that every language decision—including bilingual language use—carries social meaning, and thus impacts the way speakers portray themselves and are perceived by others.

In Chapter 5, the authors concentrate on methods used to collect data pertinent to HL investigations. To facilitate this discussion, they provide a treatment of three types of validity—internal, external, and ecological—to be weighed when making a methodological decision. Specifically, they mention points to consider for collecting spoken and written data, participant selection, research design, and data handling, including storage, transcription, and annotation. Focusing on written data, they consider the merits of data from chat sites and social media in heritage language studies. The obligatory inclusion of surveys and questionnaires is also proffered, as well as the use of experimental approaches such as grammatical judgement tasks. The chapter concludes with various questions to aid in determining which method to choose, stating that in many instances a combination of methods is the best option for providing more robust analyses.

The discussion then switches to variability and change in Chapter 6. Here the authors further detail the drawback of using the monolingual native as a baseline for HLs and delve into the idea of multiple baselines—including the bilingual baseline—for studying variability and change. In this chapter they investigate in greater detail the topic of age of onset and other factors that lead to individual variability such as community and speaker characteristics. The authors conclude the chapter by addressing ways to evaluate speaker proficiency through cloze tests, lexical proficiency tasks, and sociolinguistic background questionnaires.

Chapter 7 is titled “Heritage language phenomena and what triggers them.” Here the authors delineate areas where HL speakers might differ from a given baseline, such as phonology, lexicon (e.g. loan translations and loan extensions), morphology, and syntax. They explain how language internal factors as well as how language contact—external factors—might each in turn influence language change. Chapter 8 then provides a variety of research paradigms and grammatical models that investigate these variations and deviations. Provided with each of these models are case studies where methods and data selection are discussed. These paradigms include generative grammar, variationist sociolinguistics and optimality theory. Finally, they treat usage-based models, and compare the paradigms and state how each can be used to inform HL research. The focus on factors that influence language processing in bilinguals is then presented in Chapter 9, where the authors introduce findings from experimental psycholinguistics.

Aalberse, Backus & Muysken’s then approach HLs in the specific setting of post-colonization, focusing on the creole Papiamentu in Chapter 10. Here they discuss the development of Papiamentu, and the influence Dutch has had on the language in the ABC islands as well as in the Netherlands.

Chapter 11 enters into the politics of HLs by investigating diversity management. They couch this discussion in the various frames of reference regarding language diversity. Included in this is the Babylon frame, where language diversity is seen as a punishment to be avoided; the Tsunami frame, where mass immigration is seen as a destructive, threatening force, especially regarding the influx of new HLs; and finally, the Heritage frame, where a strong tradition of immigration leads to greater acceptance of language diversity. Specifically mentioned is the notion of reversing language shift along with indigenous language revival. Of importance to this discussion is the many forms of HL education, from bilingual education models to community-based interactions in the HL. Codeswitching is revisited, specifically treating the impact on language proficiency, purity and language loss. Finally, the authors mention concerns with linguistic human rights and overcoming linguistic discrimination. The chapter also serves as a conclusion, where a brief overview of the concepts present throughout the book is provided. Finally, Chapter 12 gives a list of technical terms used in the book along with their definitions, provided in alphabetical order.


Aalberse, Backus & Muysken’s tome is a welcomed addition to the study of HLs. The authors’ goal of introducing HLs in connection to the field of language contact is insightful and overall presented in a highly digestible manner for those new to this topic. It also serves the veteran linguist with current analyses of concrete examples of language contact manifestations in the HL world.

The authors skillfully transition from relevant topic to relevant topic, aiding the reader in the progress of understanding the material at hand. For example, the authors adeptly introduce bilingual language usage in Chapter 3 and then in Chapter 4 delve headlong into the subject. Such transitions appear throughout the book.

The breadth of topics covered—from defining HL to a history of HL research to variability in HL speakers—is precisely what one would expect in this type of book. An unexpected and applauded addition to this list is Chapter 8’s discussion on four research paradigms and how each informs research on HLs. Each chapter is well balanced—amazingly each covers approximately 20 pages—and thoroughly developed. A potential exception was the lack of inclusion in Chapter 7 of pragmatic change as a result of language contact. And while the last section of Chapter 11 provides a great summary of the book, this wrap up does merit its own concluding chapter.

Although the authors never state who the target audience is, this book would be appropriate for those pursuing advanced degrees in various fields of linguistics, especially areas dealing with bilingualism and language contact. This is evident in their discussion of the methods used to investigate HLs and language contact. And while said section is well written, one area of omission includes how data could be analyzed once collected. While this perhaps is out of the scope of the present book, a discussion on available resources such as statistical packages and tests for carrying out such analyses would be beneficial to the target audience.

As stated in Chapter 12, the authors have made an attempt to define any technical terms in the text itself, but at times they missed their mark. Thankfully, the
chapter—which perhaps should have been renamed as an appendix—provides several definitions that help clarify any confusion. However, one of the shortcomings of the book is the open-ended nature of some of the definitions posed by the authors.

Of greatest concern was the definition of heritage language itself. In Chapter 1 the authors present numerous ways in which HLs have been defined, and accurately introduce key dimensions of the definition of HLs used by other researchers. However, they never provide a concrete working definition of how they themselves will define HLs. It is necessary to state explicitly if all six dimensions are important to their definition, if some will be excluded or further dimensions added. This is particularly troubling in light of the inclusion of Papiamentu in the ABC islands in Chapter 10, where language contact (particularly with Dutch) is evident but HL status—based on the six dimensions—is questionable. Papiamentu has official status in Aruba and Curaçao, and as such fails to meet the criterion of dimension number one: non-official language status. Likewise, as a native creole language in the Caribbean it would be hard to argue that the language meets the criteria of shift in language dominance or of being divergent from a baseline grammar. When the authors shift the discussion to Papiamentu in the Netherlands, which composes only a minority of the chapter, only then does the inclusion become relevant to the current tome. Similarly, the authors use terms like ‘minority language’ without indicating whether this is synonymous with HL. In a similar light, there is concern with the authors equating ‘heritage speakers’ with ‘semi-speakers’ (p. 59-60), a term that has been seen as pejorative and detrimental to academic achievement in bilinguals (MacSwan 2000).

Similarly, the definition of codeswitching (CS) is so broad that it includes almost any element that might proceed from another language. While it is true that “there exists debate in the literature concerning the precise characterization of CS” (Bullock & Toribio, 2, 2009), Aalberse, Backus & Muysken again fail to provide a working definition of CS. Of specific concern is whether any word or phrase of foreign origin, regardless of duration in the language and level of phonological adaption, will still be considered CS. It is unclear if it is still CS when a bilingual uses a word of foreign origin that is fully incorporated in the majority language, say for example the Spanish-origin word ‘ranch’ in the English of the United States. Adding to this concern, the authors note that “Many of the global food staples go by names that betray where they originally came from: tomato and chocolate both come from Nahuatl words, for example” (p. 70). However, they provide no evidence that folk linguists would be aware that these highly incorporated and fully phonologically adapted words were from a foreign origin, let alone from Nahuatl. The authors later add that it is “likely that most or all foreign words are widely recognized as foreign-origin” (p. 82), similarly without providing any evidence that bilinguals (or monolinguals) know the status of such lexical borrowings.

The book contains several tables and figures that help to exemplify the topics at hand, and the majority are incorporated nicely. However, some were minimally referenced and explained. The image on page 68, for example, shows a handwritten advertisement reading ‘Take what you need’ with phrases like ‘forgiveness,’ ‘faith,’ and ‘love’ written on slips of paper intended to be torn off. While the authors include this image at the end of their presentation of bilingual use, arguing for bilinguals being able to take from each language whatever they need in order to convey their message, the image seems unmerited (it is the only image in the book) and is never referenced. Likewise, Table 1.1, which is provided to summarize the definition of HL, contains lower case x, upper case X and parenthetical (x). It is unclear as to what these symbols indicate. Similarly, Figure 6.2 attempts to illustrate the study of cross-generational families, and although the caption explains the different degrees of shading, it is impossible to follow what is being demonstrated. And Figure 7.1 contains information that is intended to clarify the relationship between HLs and the baseline varieties, showing incomplete acquisition. However, more explanation of what the figure illustrates is merited.

In spite of the generally ample review of the literature for the majority of the topics, several important subjects seemed scarce and underdeveloped. Perhaps most salient was the theme of reversing language shift, a topic of great concern to HL communities. Not only does their discussion only cover a little over two pages, it failed to include the principles presented in perhaps the most seminal research on this subject by Fishman (e.g. 1991, 2001), among others.

In Chapter 1 the concept of ‘scenario approach’ was introduced, and it was alluded that this would form a central part of the book. However, the concept was never truly revisited in the book. Yes, the authors provide ample scenarios and case studies, but never did they indicate how these contributed to Table 1.2 in predicting linguistic outcomes of the scenario or the possible historic contexts that lead to a given language contact outcome.

While it would be untenable to anticipate a manuscript of this length to have no errata, there are more in this tome than should be expected. These appear in the form of punctation errors, spelling errors, repeated words/phrases, incorrect word usage, omitted words and errors in calculation of dates. However, very few of these affect comprehension.

These limitations aside, Aalberse, Backus & Muysken provide a very informative, well researched dive into the field of heritage language through the lens of language contact. The concrete examples of understudied languages taken from recorded language corpora as well as the global perspective of the research makes this an especially distinctive work. This book will make a great addition to anyone interested in heritage languages and their speakers and language contact phenomena.


Bullock, B. E., & Toribio, A. J. (2009). The Cambridge handbook of linguistic code-switching. Cambridge University Press.

Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Multilingual matters.

Fishman, J. A. (Ed.). (2001). Can threatened languages be saved?: Reversing language shift, revisited: A 21st century perspective. Multilingual Matters.

MacSwan, J. (2000). The threshold hypothesis, semilingualism, and other contributions to a deficit view of linguistic minorities. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 22(1), 3-45.
Tyler K. Anderson is Professor of Spanish at Colorado Mesa University, where he teaches courses in language, linguistics and second language acquisition. His research interests include language attitudes toward manifestations of contact linguistics, including the acceptability of lexical borrowing and code-switching in Spanish and English contact situations. He is currently researching the perceptions of phonetic interference in second language acquisition.