Toward a new framework for understanding variation in heritage bilinguals

By Ariel Chan (University of California, Los Angeles/Irvine), Andrew Cheng (University of California, Irvine), Judith Kroll (University of California, Irvine) & Gregory Scontras (University of California, Irvine)

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An upsurge of research in the past decade has examined the cognitive mechanisms that enable bilingual speakers to code-switch to recognize speech in multiple languages and accents and to navigate the landscape of linguistic and cultural contexts.  A focus in contemporary research is to understand how variation in experience and interactional context influences these processes. But variation has been conceptualized differently in psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic research. Psycholinguistic research has approached language experience as either a categorical or quantifiable variable (e.g. LEAP-Q questionnaire language entropy). In sociolinguistics variability has been treated as a function of speakers’ sociocultural context and language experience is often analyzed qualitatively (e.g. deep ethnography discourse/Conversation analysis). We propose a new framework to begin to bring together these two approaches to variation.  We do so by focusing on the experience of heritage speakers who are difficult to classify according to “traditional” models of bilingualism but provide a unique lens for an analysis that includes language and cultural experience. Recent psycholinguistic research is moving away from categorical characterizations to recognize that not all bilingual speakers are the same and that not all contexts for learning and using two languages engage cognitive processes in the same ways. That shift is congenial with socioculturally-informed perspectives on language experience but has not been developed in any detail. Thus we offer a perspective on how the synthesis of psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic methods can help us understand variation phenomena in the behavior of heritage speakers. We use two examples to illustrate our approach. The first example examines code-switching: to what extent do ethnic identity and language experience affect code-switching behavior in heritage bilinguals? We describe an approach that quantifies ethnic identity to consider how these factors might interact with mechanisms of cognitive control that enable bilingual speakers to switch from one language to the other without significant disruption. We hypothesize that heritage speakers who maintain stronger connections with their heritage culture may exhibit enhanced cognitive control. They may be better able to sustain their heritage language in the face of competition from the dominant language of their environment thus influencing their code-switching performance less.The second example focuses on accent perception: how does the social context of a linguistic interaction affect the online processing of accented speech? We argue that heritage bilinguals will have different assumptions about speakers that they bring to a linguistic interaction compared to other types of speakers. As heritage speakers they have more varied language experiences that may heighten their sensitivity to the indexical value of a specific sound thereby improving accuracy in accented word identification. Taken together we hope to illustrate the power of a cross-disciplinary approach to language science using converging methods and theoretical perspectives from sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics to study heritage bilinguals. Sociolinguistic methods offer a more nuanced understanding of how to formalize the notion of variation in language experiences while psycholinguistic methods offer the sensitive tools for measuring variability during online cognitive processing.

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Published: Wednesday, April 21, 2021