Fellow 2004-05

Silvina Andrea Montrul

Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese


Professor Montrul’s main research area is second-language acquisition. She also explores issues in bilingualism and potential language loss of minority languages as an individual phenomenon. Her work is empirical and firmly grounded in generative linguistic theory, using the theoretical tools and methodologies of formal syntax, psycholinguistics, and first- and second-language acquisition. Her guiding assumption is that second-language and bilingual grammars constitute another source of linguistic facts relevant to a theory of language, rather than peculiar or deviant linguistic behavior that is manifested in bilingual speech. Over the past three years, she has been exploring differences and similarities between second-language acquisition and language loss as a result of bilingualism.

During her Center appointment, she will reexamine a hypothesis that has been central to explaining lack of success in second-language acquisition: the Critical Period Hypothesis. This hypothesis has often been invoked to explain why post-puberty second-language learners rarely reach the level of linguistic ability of native speakers. To date, empirical support for the hypothesis has not been unequivocal. Professor Montrul will evaluate the hypothesis from a different perspective, looking at the flip side of second-language acquisition: bilinguals who were exposed to two languages early in childhood or later and are losing their first language. The project compares knowledge of Spanish in two types of bilinguals: adult second-language learners and heritage speakers (second-generation immigrants or their children living in the United States).

A major objective of the project is to identify specific structural properties of language acquisition and loss in the domains of the lexicon, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics and determine whether these are related to other external, sociolinguistic variables (input, socialization, degree of language use, language prestige). Using linguistic tests to tap knowledge of language and examine patterns of language use, she will investigate whether heritage speakers are linguistically superior to second-language learners and, if they are, whether linguistic advantages are selective or observed across the board. The work will complement existing studies of ultimate attainment in second-language acquisition and of early linguistic deprivation in first-language acquisition and deaf populations.