LINGUIST List 32.496

Tue Feb 09 2021

Review: General Linguistics: Polinsky (2020)

Editor for this issue: Billy Dickson <>

Date: 04-Aug-2020
From: Mitsuyo Sakamoto <>
Subject: Heritage Languages and their Speakers
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Maria Polinsky
TITLE: Heritage Languages and their Speakers
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 159
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Mitsuyo Sakamoto, Sophia University


With increasing globalism and accompanying mobilization, people are constantly de-rooting and re-rooting in different parts of the world. With that displacement and replacement, mother tongues of the parents are at times passed onto the children as their heritage language and at other times they are lost. As applied linguists, our temptation is to preserve the heritage language in the generations to come while facilitating second language (L2) acquisition (Kondo Brown, Sakamoto, & Nishikawa, 2019). In doing so, investigating and understanding characteristics inherent in heritage language is the indispensable first step, and Maria Polinsky does exactly that. In this volume four dimensions of heritage language are explored in great detail: phonetics and phonology, morphology and morphosyntax, syntax, and semantic and pragmatics.


The book is comprised of a preface followed by eight chapters and a conclusion. The preface, along with a rationale for this volume, includes a personal tale of Polinsky herself, having immigrated to the US from the then Soviet Union, witnessing changes undergone by the language brought from the homeland. The researcher is intrigued by what aspects of language are kept and what are abandoned by heritage speakers. Over the years, she comes to realize that, regardless of the language you speak, heritage languages share a number of recurrent properties.

Chapter 1 is titled, “Who are these speakers, where do they come from, and how did they get to be the way they are?” Polinsky begins by providing concrete definitions in describing heritage speakers: “heritage speakers as unbalanced bilinguals whose heritage (weaker) language is their first language” (p. 4). Polinsky is interested in discovering linguistic features of heritage speakers, and therefore notes how her definition should be distinguished from a broader definition of understanding heritage speakers as those having family, ethnic, or emotional connections to a particular language but who were not exposed to it during childhood and who may choose to relearn it later in life as adults, a definition embraced by language revivalists such as Fishman (2001).

Polinsky’s definition of heritage speakers includes sequential and simultaneous bilinguals, with a caveat that sequential bilinguals are usually slightly more proficient in the minority language. She also goes on to add how not all bilinguals are alike, and that their range of proficiency should be envisioned as a continuum. Given this variation among heritage speakers, Polinsky further describes three types of speakers: acrolectal speakers whose high competence resembles those of the baseline (i.e., the language of the first-generation immigrants; the language of the speakers in the country of origin is separately referred to as the homeland language), basilectal speakers whose language knowledge is quite divergent and least like the baseline, and mesolectal speakers who are in between. Moreover, distinctions between receptive versus productive bilinguals are explained, referring to those only having the receptive skills as “overhearers”. She also describes returnees who return to the homeland upon sojourn in a host country.

After identifying who heritage speakers are, Polinsky moves on to describe heritage grammar. She notes how there are three possible fates the first language can go through: transfer, attrition and innovation (or divergent) attainment. She provides concrete empirical examples to illustrate how transfer manifests in heritage grammar, syntax and lexis being the domains where transfer is particularly visible.

Attrition is defined as a temporary or permanent loss of language ability, which is not only a phenomenon for the aged but also for the young. She reports how age of onset of bilingualism is inversely related to the extent of attrition, and that children, especially those younger than 10 or 12, are more prone to losing their L1 skills compared to those who began L2 learning later in life. She calls for more longitudinal studies that document and investigate age-matched first- and second-generation speakers’ attrition.

Polinsky objects to the term “incomplete acquisition”, and instead proposes the term “divergent attainment”. This is because she deems heritage grammar, while deviant from the baseline grammar, to be a complete, consistent system of its own. They are not deficiencies but divergence (or “innovation”), a systematic, coherent grammar. Divergent attainment is explained as a result of several driving forces, including quality and quantity of input, incipient changes in the baseline, and universal principles of language design (p. 28). These three factors are each explained in further detail.

Chapter 2 titled “Heritage English” provides overall features of heritage language. While pronunciation is described to be native-like, heritage speaker’s production includes non-native-like errors. Specifically, heritage speaker’s production displays features of long pauses, disfluencies, hesitations caused by lexical access problems, problems with inflectional morphology, limited complex syntactic structures and poor knowledge of noncompositional expressions. Lack of literacy is also a typical feature of heritage speakers.

At the same time, Polinsky is adamant that these features are not to be misinterpreted as heritage speakers doing everything “wrong”, speaking “corrupted” language, and sounding “uneducated” or “childish” (p. 74). Polinsky calls for approaches that conceptualise heritage speakers in more positive ways.

Chapter 3 “How to study heritage speakers: Observations on methodologies and approaches” takes a slightly different stance from the previous two chapters, as this one focuses on methodology-related issues. She cautions about the plight heritage speakers are in, having an ostensibly native-like pronunciation but non-native morphosyntactic features. Because they have been evaluated from a deficit perspective, heritage speakers can fall in the “circle of deterioration” (p. 80) in which the individual may become reluctant to speak their home language for fear of being criticized. Polinsky’s suggestion is a logical one: she advises that the data be collected by nonnative L2 speakers of that language. If an L2 speaker cannot be found, to reduce anxiety, she suggests recruiting those who are close to the heritage speakers in age. She also suggests meeting several times and changing topics of discussion as needed to see what engages them, helping to establish mutual trust and reduce anxiety.

Polinsky goes on to talk about different materials to collect data. One of the first mentioned is elicited imitation. While it has its limitations, she emphasises its usefulness. For example, she provides a concrete example of a French cohort of heritage English speakers to illustrate her point. In the task, a considerable reworking of the structure was identified that allowed heritage speakers to avoid using a relative clause. This example is followed by her own heritage Russian example, in which she also observed difficulties for the heritage speakers to retain the original form.

The next section explores the use of grammaticality judgment tasks (GJTs). Polinsky notes how heritage language speakers do particularly poorly on GJTs. This is attributed to the heritage speaker’s reluctance to reject ungrammatical materials, which she refers to as the “yes-bias”, a common feature found in both heritage speakers and L2 learners. Again, her contention is followed by concrete empirical examples.

She cautions against simple, explicit tasks because subtle differences between the native speakers and heritage speakers are often lost. Another caution she poses is that heritage speaker’s poor performance might not necessarily be grammatical errors but extragrammatical in nature, such as working-memory strain. Given the limitations in GJT, Polinsky suggests using interpretation-based methods such as sentence-picture matching and truth-value judgment tasks to test a heritage speaker’s comprehension. Ideally, one can combine several methodologies to investigate heritage speakers.

Polinsky also reminds us how biographic questionnaires can reveal pertinent information about the learner, such as the age of language acquisition, amount of language use and self-assessment pertaining to linguistic performance. Interestingly, Polinsky notes how heritage speaker’s confidence level is inversely correlated with their proficiency. This is followed up by evidence from Polinsky’s own study of heritage Russian speakers that looked at speech rate, which is representative of fluency. She discovered how the more fluent the speaker is, the lower they evaluated themselves in comparison with native speakers. As self-perception is tied to ethnic and cultural identification, Polinsky cautions how self-assessment may add complications to the data collected.

Another assessment material Polinsky introduces is Cloze tests and C-tests (integrative tests of language proficiency; a shorter alternative to cloze tests). While she acknowledges high reliability, ease and efficiency of test administration, objectivity in scoring, and integrative language use, she also warns of the lack of face validity, poor item discrimination and unclear construct validity. They are also often administered in written form, which places heritage speakers, whose literacy skills are known to be limited, at a disadvantage.

Lexical knowledge is described as measurable in several ways. For example, lexical decision tasks measure the extent and speed of classifying real and nonce words. However, again Polinsky notes the tendency of concessive yes-bias among heritage speakers, which could produce inconclusive results. Other possible tools to use include the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) which does not rely on literacy, hence appropriate for low-proficient heritage speakers.

Chapter 4 deals with the first of the four linguistic aspects taken up in detail: phonetics and phonology. Polinsky notes how phonetic advantage is a clear positive trait found across heritage speakers. Polinsky provides numerous studies which unanimously show heritage speakers’ phonetic advantage compared to L2 learners. Nevertheless, some studies report on an accent referred to as a “heritage accent” (p. 122). One explanation for this is that the dialect spoken by immigrant parents (baseline) may undergo significant leveling. Other possible explanations include ease in articulation and overemphasised accent. Polinsky describes how heritage speakers rely on a “good enough” strategy in which differences between L1 and L2 are downplayed when they are not sufficiently informative. This effect is described to be bidirectional, L1 affecting L2 and vice versa. Again, she provides ample evidence to show this mutuality.

The conclusion Polinsky reaches pertaining to heritage speaker’s phonetic/phonological abilities is that heritage speakers have separate sound systems for each language, and that they do not identify L1 sounds with L2. At the same time, heritage speakers downplay the similarities across different languages, adopting what she describes as a “good enough” strategy, compromising sound production. She further adds how the differences between heritage speakers and baseline are not merely performative but possibly conceptual and this needs to be explored further.

Chapter 5 explores heritage speaker’s morphology and morphosyntax. She warns how morphology is one of the vulnerable areas for attrition. Not surprisingly, infrequent irregular forms tend to be difficult for heritage speakers, while frequent irregular forms are not. She attributes this to perceptual salience, although she cautions that salience alone does not necessarily lead to retention, and again provides substantial research evidence from various languages.

Some grammatical features are more prone to attrition than others. Case and agreement are particularly vulnerable. Again, frequency and saliency are described to be determinants affecting retention. Low salient items are often omitted, and a tendency for uniformity and simplicity is evident in heritage grammar. This tendency is referred to as a “silent problem” (p. 220).

Chapter 6 is dedicated to syntax. She describes how heritage production can be characterized by multiple disfluencies, errors in case and agreement, and lack of complex structures. Despite its incongruencies with the baseline norms, heritage language is again described as following principled rules. Some features are said to be the result of transfer, whereas others are a result of universal principles of language design. Polinsky’s discussions are extensive, drawing from monolingual aphasic patients and neuroimaging, noting how verbs induce more brain activity than nouns. Indeed, a similar pattern was observed in heritage speakers. She further discusses A-dependencies, noting how heritage speakers do not distinguish unaccusative-unergative forms. Passive construction was also investigated, and both overmarking and undermarking were found in heritage production. Difficulties in acquiring the passive is associated with its infrequency and its association with the written register. Polinsky also explores A-bar dependencies, including production of relative clauses and wh-questions. Again, while heritage patterns show divergences, she emphasises that it is neither deficient nor unpredictable but distinct and systematic.

In this chapter, “the silent problem” (p. 253) resurfaces, as heritage speakers have difficulties associating meaning with the absence of form. For example, null pronouns are described to be vulnerable to attrition, being replaced by overt pronouns. Polinsky notes how this is the result of reorganized internal grammar. Binding in heritage grammar is also a distinct system, but the errors are not the same across different languages. She concludes that abstract knowledge of binding in heritage speakers is intact but the errors, like other grammatical features, show particular rearrangement in heritage grammars.

Chapter 7 takes up semantics and pragmatics. In the area of semantics, heritage speakers again show divergent tendencies compared to the baseline, but not to the extent of L2 speakers. Polinsky describes heritage speakers to “move boldly” compared to L2 speakers (p. 327), unafraid to create novel expressions by combining L1 and L2 features in innovative ways. One major feature of heritage semantics is the reliance on fully compositional structures. Semantically opaque expressions are avoided and more transparent semantics are preferred. Of the L1 and L2 systems, the simpler system wins out, resulting in less complexity. In order to expand research in this area, Polinsky suggests incorporating various research methodologies, including corpus analysis and conversational analysis.

Chapter 8 is specifically about endangered language speakers. Here, Polinsky not only takes up aspects of heritage grammar but also proffers insights in recruiting and working with endangered language speakers. She describes how collecting data from this particular cohort is different from soliciting participants from groups whose languages are still very much alive. In some cases, the participant represents the baseline speaker and others heritage speakers. In order to collect their biographical information, details such as the percentage of language spoken might not be accurate, given that their frequent L1 use could have happened years ago. Polinsky notes how self-assessment is also not necessarily reliable, as with other heritage speakers, she has found an inverse correlation between confidence and proficiency, where modest individuals tended to be those who were highly proficient, and the confident ones to be lower in proficiency.

As she did in previous chapters, she explores various facets of heritage grammar, for example, ergativity in endangered languages. One illustrative example she offers is that of Arctic Quebec Inuktitut. It was discovered that the participants avoided producing structures that required ergative morphology. However, Polinsky notes that this does not mean ergativity is lost, but rather functionally changed in heritage grammar. Again, Polinsky attributes the restructuring of grammar largely to the silent problem and to perceptual salience. Yes-bias is also operative in endangered language speakers.

Finally, in the conclusion chapter, Polinsky summarizes her findings. She characterizes heritage speakers to be reluctant speakers, hesitant in judging linguistic data, redundant in speech, slow in delivery and unstable in performance. The book concentrates on describing the mechanics of heritage language, but she notes how interest in sociolinguistic aspects is also growing in order to better understand heritage speakers.

In domains such as lexicon, heritage speakers display characteristics similar to those of L2 speakers, but given the different input received and dissimilar exposure to the target language, heritage speakers and L2 learners have different needs. On the other hand, in comparison to native speakers, heritage speakers share similar sound production, allowing heritage speakers to often sound prima facie native-like. However, when examined closely, heritage speakers display “good enough” strategies in which the L1 and L2 sound production is compromised. Other heritage language features include low tolerance for optionality, preference for one-to-one mapping between form and function, perceptually salient materials and simpler constructs, and problems with ambiguities. These features give rise to heritage speakers’ own innovative restructured linguistic system.


This volume is thorough, comprehensive, and multifaceted, capturing the uniqueness, complexities and subtleties that characterize heritage language. A plethora of concrete research evidence from numerous languages is provided to illustrate the points made.
Her comprehensiveness however, at times gives an impression that, for example, heritage speakers can be amalgamated together as one group, when, as she herself points out, heritage language forms a continuum. Therefore, it should be emphasised that the examples she provides are for illustrative purposes, and for finer details, the original study should be consulted.

Her call to describe heritage grammar not as deficient, but rather divergent , with innovative, coherent grammar is a welcome shift in perspective. Any stigma created and attached to heritage speakers has resulted in their reluctance to speak in fear of strictures from native speakers. Ideological changes on the part of researchers, educators and policymakers can affect how and why heritage speakers should be investigated.

Another positive aspect that should be highlighted is Polinsky’s generosity in sharing research evidence and suggestions with other researchers so that the field could be expanded further.

While this is a seminal work, those who are less familiar with theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics may have a harder time appreciating the ample research evidence the book offers. Likewise, familiarity with different languages, especially Russian and Korean, would be helpful to fully appreciate the many illustrative examples she provides.

Lastly, innovative, coherent heritage grammar shows trends in what I would describe as features of translanguaging (Garcia & Li Wei, 2014). Heritage speakers have at their disposal two (or more) linguistic systems which have been fused into one, creatively bringing their linguistic resources together. However, while code switching is briefly mentioned in the book, translanguaging is not. I believe translanguaging concepts can complement what Polinsky offers in important ways.

This book provides a comprehensive and up-to-date account of heritage speakers. While their grammar has often been described putatively as deficient, aberrant and error-prone, Polinsky suggests an alternative conceptualisation, deeming it a coherent, rational linguistic system, a welcome and important alternative that questions and challenges the way we have understood heritage speakers to date.


Fishman, J. (2001). 300-plus years of heritage language education in the United States. In J. K. Peyton et al. (Eds), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource, (pp. 81-98). Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Garcia, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. Palgrave Pivot.

Kondo Brown, K., Sakamoto, M., & Nishikawa, T. (2019). Oya to ko wo tsunagu keishogo kyoiku [Heritage language education connecting generations: From the Japanese perspective]. Kurosio.


Mitsuyo Sakamoto is Professor in the Department of English Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. She is a sociolinguist specializing in bilingualism, multiculturalism and sociocultural theory, taken up from critical perspectives.

Page Updated: 09-Feb-2021