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Lecture | Sociolinguistics Series

Consistent definitions matter! Problematising the ‘heritage’ labels in bilingualism research

Friday 18 September 2020
LUCL Sociolinguistics Series 2022/2023
online | The link for accessing this event will be posted on the LUCL Sociolinguistics Series website (see below).


In this position paper, we depart from the observation that the burgeoning field of heritage language studies displays considerable inconsistency in the use of the terms ‘heritage language’ (HL) and ‘heritage speaker’ (HS), especially in relation to other categories, such as ‘minority language’, ‘endangered language’ and ‘native speaker’. Not only does the interchangeable use of these terms potentially cause confusion, the lack of consensus renders comparison between studies – especially those from different frameworks – problematic. We address two issues here: first, the definition of a HL and how HSs are claimed to differ (or not) from other types of asymmetric bilinguals; and second, why seemingly HLs require special attention, and special terminology, apart from other instances of bilingualism. These issues lead us to question the very construct of a heritage grammar (HG).

Defining what is meant by HL is not a new endeavour (see, for example, Polinsky, 2018; Ortega, 2019; Aalberse et al. 2019 for recent overviews). Key dimensions underpinning the proposed definitions include its official status and whether it is “divergent” from a baseline, as well as the language dominance, age of acquisition of dominant language, and personal or ethnic ties of the HSs (Aalberse et al., 2019: 11). One might argue that as long as each researcher defines what is meant by HL/HS in any given study, then the terminological issue is avoided. We argue that the solution isn’t that simple, since generalizations across studies are simply not possible if the HL populations are not comparable (see also Nagy, 2015). The label HL implies that all such languages can somehow be grouped together, as can ‘Romance languages’ or ‘endangered languages’, which importantly are categorised according to different, but clearly defined and measurable, criteria (genealogical affiliation vs. number of speakers). Moreover, a label such as ‘Heritage Spanish’ is overly generalised, paying insufficient attention to the varying societally dominant language(s), or the specific social circumstances of a given HS community.

Regarding the definition of HSs, studies variously label speakers whose age of onset of the dominant societal language ranges from birth to 15 years old (Ortega, 2019). It should come as no surprise, then, that we find non-trivial differences between HS populations across multiple variables. Some studies show that adult HSs pattern with L2 learners, child (L1) language learners, or with attrited native speakers (see Polinksy & Scontras, 2019). Others show that HSs behave as monolinguals, while others do not, a contrast linked to formal education in the HL (Kupisch & Rothman, 2018). Either HSs are unpredictable or the populations under investigation differ according to meaningful variables. These differences, in dominance, age of acquisition, age of interruption of input, domains of usage, formal education, prestige, etc. are exactly those found, and controlled for, in bilingualism studies more generally (see Mueller Gathercole, 2008).

To single out HLs and their associated HGs for special treatment seems unmotivated; psycholinguists see no principled reason to do so (see Aalberse et al., 2019: 184), so why do theoretical and sociolinguists? If we can define and discuss HSs and HLs using the terminology and methodologies already available to us in bilingualism and language contact research, why do we need (yet) another category of bilingual (see also Otheguy, 2013)? Adding further complexity to the typology of bilinguals not only risks excessive separatism in the field, but it also continues to ignore the reality of bilingualism as a gradient variable (e.g. Luk & Bialystok, 2004). No bilingual individual or community is evenly balanced, therefore HSs simply constitute asymmetric bilinguals of varying degrees, dependent on multiple variables. Their linguistic behaviour is naturally of interest, since it is informative about both language-internal and contact-induced change, as well as about language acquisition and attrition. But rather than treating them as a special group from the outset (Polinsky, 2018: 349), ​if we are to understand the nature of bilingualism, we need empirical evidence to assume that ‘imbalanced’ bilingualism of a particular kind (heritage in this case) merits special treatment.


  • Aalberse, Suzanne, Ad Backus & Pieter Muysken. 2019. ​Heritage Languages: A language contact approach. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Luk, Gigi & Ellen Bialystok. 2014. Bilingualism is not a categorical variable: Interaction between language proficiency and usage, ​Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25 (5): 605-621.
  • Kupisch, Tanja & Jason Rothman. 2018. Terminology matters! Why difference is not incompleteness and how early child bilinguals are heritage speakers. ​International Journal of Bilingualism, 22 (5): 564-582.
  • Mueller Gathercole, Virginia C. 2008. Miami and North Wales, So Far and Yet So Near: A Constructivist Account of Morphosyntactic Development in Bilingual Children. ​International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10 (3): 224-247.
  • Nagy, Naomi. 2015. A sociolinguistic view of null subjects and VOT in Toronto heritage languages. ​Lingua 164: 309-327.
  • Ortega, Lourdes. 2019. The Study of Heritage Language Development From a Bilingualism and Social Justice Perspective. ​Language Learning 70 (S1): 15–53.
  • Otheguy, R. 2013. ​The linguistic competence of second – generation bilinguals: A critique of “incomplete acquisition”. Keynote Address delivered at the Linguistic Symposium on the Romance Languages. The Graduate Center, City University of New York, April 17–19, 2013.
  • Polinsky, Maria. 2018. ​Heritage Languages and Their Speakers.
  • Polinsky, Maria & Gregory Scontras. 2019. Understanding heritage languages. ​Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1-17.

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