LINGUIST List 27.4649

Tue Nov 15 2016

Review: Applied Ling; Language Acq; Psycholing; Socioling: Montrul (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 06-May-2016
From: Laura Dubcovsky <>
Subject: The Acquisition of Heritage Languages
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Silvina A Montrul
TITLE: The Acquisition of Heritage Languages
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Laura Dubcovsky, University of California, Davis

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“The acquisition of heritage languages,” by Silvina Montrul, focuses on the nature, characteristics, and differences between heritage speakers, native speakers and second language learners. Montrul takes into account theories and principles from different perspectives and reflects on social, educational, and linguistic implications. In the “Introduction” (Chapter 1) the author situates the field of heritage language acquisition in the context of the global economy and geopolitical changes. She highlights the importance of profiling heritage speakers, based on the growing numbers of immigrant students, and on the consequences of teaching heritage languages in the current educational curriculum. Montrul acknowledges the contribution of interrelated disciplines, such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and formal linguistics. The former enables clarification of relevant language issues of prestige, diachronic changes, and language varieties, while psycholinguistic factors enlighten critical age, developmental stages, and sequential and simultaneous acquisition, and formal linguistics front loads salient grammatical aspects of the acquisitional process. The author closes the introduction with a clear layout of the main themes interwoven in the book.

Chapter 2 explores the nature and scope of “Heritage languages and heritage speakers.” Montrul chooses an operational definition of heritage speaker as somebody who grew up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, where the home language and the majority languages were spoken (Valdés 2001). Following sociolinguistic environments, she exemplifies various types of heritage languages, such as immigrant, national minority, and aboriginal (Table 2.1 p.15). Montrul also characterizes heritage speakers and heritage language learners, according to cultural and educational criteria (Table 2.3 p.21), and extends the definition to include immigrant and nonimmigrant communities. Finally she incorporates simultaneous and sequential bilinguals, immigrant children and youth, speakers of historical minority languages and indigenous languages, and returnees and international adoptees, as part of the broad umbrella of heritage speakers (Table 2.7 p.40). Montrul pays special attention to the complex notion of competence and the variety found among heritage speakers. She explains the controversial term through the related notions of language dominance, which represents the more frequent use of one language over the other, and language proficiency, which includes grammatical ability and fluency in a language. Generally speaking, heritage speakers tend to be dominant in the majority language and unevenly proficient in the two languages.

In Chapter 3 Montrul clarifies how dominance and proficiency are strongly influenced by biographical and psycholinguistic factors, social and cultural contexts, and language practices and schooling (Figure 3.2 p.44). However, she focuses mainly on “The language of heritage speakers” and analyzes particular grammatical features that inform speakers’ levels of competence in the heritage language. For the lexical module she finds reduction of the vocabulary size, compared to the first generation, and easier retention of concrete and early-acquired words, compared to more abstract and less frequent terms (Table 3.5 p.53). For the morphological module the author observes inconsistencies in nominal gender agreement and regularization of irregular plural forms, as well as reduction of modes and aspects in the verb system (Table 3.8, p.71). For the syntactic module Montrul evaluates challenges given by the interpretation of long-distance references and objective relative clauses. In contrast, for the phonetic/phonological module she observes that heritage speakers reach an overall native-like level in aural perception, pronunciation, fluency, and processing speed. The author then concludes that heritage language acquisition is not only a long and complex process, but it also presents linguistic modules that develop unevenly at different paces. The finding of differentiated modules for heritage speakers challenges traditional notions of stability, uniformity, and universalism, taken for granted in most studies of first and second language acquisition.

Chapter 4 addresses “The bilingual development of heritage speakers.” Montrul revises typical categories of first and second language studies, such as order of acquisition, dominance, and function, and explores them in the context of heritage languages. She wonders which language comes first among heritage speakers, whether the heritage language is dominant, which is more frequently used and in which type of context (extended or reduced). The author also exemplifies heritage speakers’ transitional stages, showing developmental milestones in early language development (Table 4.2 p.103), and structural and pragmatic development in 6-to-8-year-old-children (Table 4.4 p.106). Montrul stresses the need for including affective, educational and attitudinal factors, as they interact and play a role in heritage language acquisition and proficiency (Figure 4.9 p.123). Among these variables the author examines quality and quantity of input, different language practices that help in developing specific oral or written modalities, and identity issues. Finally the author explains language status from a sociopolitical perspective, pointing out that a minority language runs the risk of undergoing attrition, or not advancing further in its development. Therefore she relates notions of incomplete acquisition or acquisition without mastery to heritage speakers who did not have the chance to develop their first language fully in a bilingual environment.

In Chapter 5 Montrul departs from previous descriptive chapters and addresses “Theoretical approaches” to first and second languages to strengthen the foundation of the less explored field of heritage language acquisition. Following main features of nativism, emergentism and variationist sociolinguistics, the author analyzes idealized speakers and norm, relationships between language and cognition, and roles of transfer and interlanguages, respectively (Table 5.1 p.149). She also suggests that observable facts concerning the old concepts of input, predictable stages, variable outcomes, and effects of the dominant language call for new examination in light of the acquisitional process of heritage speakers (Table 5.2 p.150). Finally Montrul illustrates theoretical approaches through studies in different languages and settings. Silva-Corvalán (1994) uses a sociolinguistic approach to explain the simplification of tense-aspect-mood in the Spanish verb system observed in three generations living in Los Angeles (1994), while Polinsky (2006) draws from formal linguistics to analyze morphosyntactic features among second generation Russian speakers in the United States. Likewise O’Grady et al. (2001) examine case marking and scope interpretation in Korean according to emergentist principles, and Bayram (2013) chooses processability theory to understand the heritage acquisition of Turkish by speakers living in Germany.

Supported by the previous theoretical framework, Montrul lays out “Methodological considerations” for studies on heritage language acquisition in Chapter 6. Among them she highlights whether to undertake longitudinal or cross-sectional studies, select large number of participants or a single case, conduct experimental or descriptive research, and collect data from routines and chunks or spontaneous language. The author stresses the importance of finding the appropriate baseline group, which can be chosen among heritage speakers themselves, speakers raised monolingually in the country of origin or in the host country, first generation immigrants either with several years of residence in the host country or recently arrived, monolingual children in the country of origin or bilingual children in the host country, etc. Another primary methodological decision consists of taking a unilingual or a bilingual approach. While in the former, language is considered dominant and the norm against which the heritage language is compared, in the latter the two languages are considered equally in order to investigate linguistic and communicative competences (Grosjean 2008). A final methodological decision involves the assessment of heritage speakers’ proficiency. Montrul encourages the development of valid and reliable tools that can both discriminate appropriately between foreign language learners and heritage speakers, and measure specific aspects of language proficiency, such as speech and oral fluency, literacy and written proficiency, grammar and lexicon, receptive and productive vocabulary, task-based performances, and acceptability judgments, etc.

The following two chapters compare heritage language proficiency to the competencies found in native and second languages. In Chapter 7 Montrul asks, “How native are heritage speakers?” examining commonalities and differences between heritage speakers and monolingual or bilingual native speakers with full command of the target language. The author explains that heritage speakers are a type of native speaker, because they are exposed to the heritage language early in life. Nevertheless, only some develop native-like abilities in specific linguistic domains and under propitious conditions, such as frequent exposure, consistent input, active use of the language, and school instruction. In contrast, most heritage speakers exhibit non-native like grammatical mastery and can communicate at low-to-intermediate level only (Carreira and Kagan 2011). Montrul finds that heritage speakers generally receive insufficient input, and are exposed to a social network that exhibits first language attrition and flaws in their second language. Moreover heritage speakers show a broad inherent variability that also affects proficiency levels. Due to the few longitudinal studies on heritage languages, Montrul suggests conducting indirect studies that illuminate explanatory mechanisms of how heritage languages develop, stabilize and avoid regression.

Chapter 8 poses the question, “Are heritage speakers like second language learners?” and exemplifies with the profile of heritage speakers and second language learners of Korean living in the United States (Table 8.1 p.251). Montrul compares categories of order of acquisition, sociopolitical status, and functional dimension/dominance pattern, although she also incorporates into the discussion contextual and experiential factors. She finds out that language transfer in the dominant language is common for both heritage speakers and second language learners and may lead to fossilization and incomplete acquisition, overruling in some cases the effect of age of acquisition. The author confirms the differentiated levels of mastery for particular modules, which are acquired, regulated and preserved by different mechanisms, and are sensitive to different schedules. For example, heritage speakers show stronger speech perception and pronunciation than second language learners, while they are usually less accurate and more vulnerable to simplification and reduction in morphology, semantics and pragmatics. Finally Montrul assigns a predictor role to the interface between specific grammatical aspects and age, as in the case of phonetic aspect with a native-like pronunciation among speakers who acquired the language at an early age.

Chapter 9 offers “Some implications” for the research and practice of heritage languages, guided by language acquisition and bilingualism, language education and language policies. Montrul summarizes useful definitions of heritage speakers, and distinguishes between resilient and vulnerable properties of the different linguistic modules. She emphasizes inherent variability and issues of dominance and proficiency that intertwine with the concept of heritage language competence. Above all the author stresses the benefit of integrating multiple and sometimes contrastive perspectives to enrich and deepen the understanding of the complex heritage language acquisition process. Montrul also provides practical implications for the education field, such as the design of curriculum and classrooms that meet the specific needs of heritage speakers. She focuses on appropriate teaching preparation programs that need to infuse stronger linguistic, cultural, and social knowledge. Teachers should be able to differentiate between teaching foreign languages, second languages, and heritage languages. The author points out that explicit instruction and the incorporation of effective strategies already used in second language classrooms, such as negative evidence, focus on form, and classroom interactions, will facilitate heritage speakers’ linguistic awareness, grammatical knowledge and writing skills. Finally she calls for language policies that support heritage languages’ survival, development and enrichment around the world.


“The acquisition of heritage languages” offers up-to-date information, developing the main topics around heritage speakers thoroughly and in well-organized manner. Montrul draws from different theories and principles, and a rich wealth of robust studies. Although the author privileges linguistic analyses, she also includes socio-cultural factors, varied environments, and educational conditions that build on the complex process of heritage language acquisition. Each chapter includes clear explanation of main ideas, figures and tables that facilitate the comprehension of more abstract concepts, and final comprehensive summaries that ease the transition to the following chapter. The author is well aware of her broad audience of professionals, students and researchers; and she sometimes addresses readers directly, inviting them to move faster or skip parts, as necessary. Montrul vividly illustrates major topics with examples in different languages and settings. However, sometimes she extends the description of these studies and provides unnecessary details, which may make unfamiliar or novice readers feel overwhelmed by excessive information or distracted from key central points. Although we agree with the author in the need for deepening the language analysis of heritage acquisition, we find that the final bibliography would be sufficient for the scope of the book. Undoubtedly “The acquisition of heritage languages” constitutes a reference book that contributes to the field of heritage language acquisition with profound theoretical and practical insights.


Bayram, F. 2013. Acquisition of Turkish by heritage speakers: A processability approach. England: University of Newcastle.

Carreira, M. and O. Kagan. 2011. The results of the national heritage language survey: Implications for teaching, curriculum design, and professional development. Foreign Language Annals 44(1). 40-64.

Grosjean, F. 2008. Studying bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O' Grady, W., et al. 2001. The acquisition of relative clauses by heritage and non-heritage learners of Korean as a second language, a comparative study. Journal of Korean Language Education 12. 283-294

Polinsky, M. 2006. Incomplete acquisition: American Russian. Journal of Slavic Linguistics 14. 191-262

Silva- Corvalán, C. 1994. Language contact and change: Spanish in Los Angeles. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Valdés, G. 2001. Heritage language students: Profiles and possibilities. In J. Peyton, D. Renard and S. McGinnis(eds) Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (37-77). Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.


Laura Dubcovsky is a lecturer and supervisor in the Teacher Education Program from The School of Education at the University of California, Davis. She has a Master’s in Education and a PhD in Spanish linguistics with special emphasis on second language acquisition. Her areas of interest combine the fields of language and bilingual education. She is dedicated to the preparation of prospective bilingual Spanish/English teachers, especially on the use of Spanish for educational purposes. She collaborates as a reviewer with the Linguistic list serve and bilingual associations, as well as with teachers, principals, and specialists at the school district. She has taught a course that addresses Communicative and Academic Spanish needed in a bilingual classroom for more than ten years. She has published the article, Functions of the verb decir (''to say'') in the incipient academic Spanish writing of bilingual children. Functions of Language, 15(2), 257-280 (2008) and the chapter, “ Desde California. Acerca de la narración en ámbitos bilingües (2015) Homo Sapiens:127- 133.

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