Current Associate

Native Speakers, Interrupted: Agents of Change in Heritage Languages
Silvina Montrul
Associate 2017-18

All spoken languages change over time. Some linguists have proposed that the monolingual child is the main agent of language change; others contend that adult second language learners and their imperfect language learning ability are the most obvious agents. Professor Montrul will argue that heritage speakers—bilingual native speakers—who combine some qualities of child monolingual speakers and adult second language speakers –can also act as significant agents of language change. As young adults, the language skills of heritage speakers rarely mirror those of their parents in many grammatical areas, leading to the uneven transmission of the heritage language across generations. The special language learning situation of heritage speakers thus provides a unique testing ground for isolating those aspects of language that are more likely to simplify and change over time.

This comparative, transgenerational, and transnational study tells the linguistic story of first and second generation immigrants through an in-depth analysis of the special case marking of some direct objects and subjects, common to Spanish, Hindi, and Romanian, elicited through linguistic tasks. The results reveal a significant degree of language change among Spanish-speakers in the United States, but not among Hindi and Romanian speakers in the United States.  These differences are related to the structures of these specific languages, to a certain extent, but also to the cultural specificities of each heritage community: its size, patterns of interaction, identity and attitudes toward the language. Using new empirical evidence, Professor Montrul will advance the hypothesis that the change in the Spanish of the United States is more likely transmitted from older children to their parents –and not from parents to the children, as some linguists have suggested.