Language Attrition and Heritage Language Reversal
Silvina Montrul University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Nowhere is the dynamic complexity of first and second language learning and forgetting more evident than in situations of mass migration. Adult immigrants with more than ten years of immersion in a second language environment can experience first language attrition and forget words and grammatical aspects of their native language. But the consequences of learning the second majority language early and quickly are more dramatic for the grammatical development and stability their children｡ﾇs native languages: indeed, many heritage speakers exposed to two languages from birth do not fully acquire their family language under pressure from the majority societal language, and many of the resulting grammatical characteristics of the heritage language in children of immigrants is very similar to non-native patterns typical of second language learners in a non-immigrant situation. Now, when some of these immigrant families return to their home countries, their pre-puberty children can experience heritage language reversal and second language attrition soon after arrival. What used to be the heritage language (e.g., Japanese in the United States) turns into the primary and dominant language in the home country (Japanese in Japan), while the primary and dominant language in the immigrant situation (e.g., English in the United States) now becomes the second and secondary language in the home country (e.g., English in Japan).
In this talk I will discuss the process of language acquisition and language loss in heritage speakers and adult immigrants in general, with a focus on the most recent research on East Asian languages in North America. I will then turn to cases of heritage language reversal in returnees in Europe and Asia, to illustrate the relative, dynamic, and complex nature of the relationship between the heritage language and the majority language, socio-politically, affectively and psycholinguistically. While the study of language loss has focused more prominently on languages under the pressure of English, looking at English developing as a weaker language in returnees and other bilingual children has much to add to understand the structural properties of English as a heritage language. Because this is a relatively under researched situation, I will conclude by raising theoretical and methodological questions about the nature of language acquisition and forgetting for children under these circumstances that future research must address.