Conference on Heritage/Community Languages

Second International

professional development \ conferences \ 2014 conference

Maria Polinsky

Harvard University


Maria Polinsky is a professor of Linguistics at Harvard University, where she also directs the Language Science Lab. Her main interests are at the intersection of syntactic theory and linguistic experimentation. She has worked extensively on a number of heritage languages and since 2007 she has been the director of the annual Heritage Language Research Institute. Email:

When L1 becomes an L3: Adventures in Heritage Re-learning

This paper presents and analyzes the case of heritage speakers who choose to re-learn their home language in adulthood. Such re-learners seem to have selective advantages over other L2/L3 learners in phonetics/phonology, but lack a global advantage at re-learning the prestige variety of their L1. There are at least two reasons for this apparent asymmetry. First, the measures of success are typically geared to L2 learners and do not always produce adequate results for heritage re-learners. Second, heritage re-learners show selective transfer effects from their dominant language rather than the heritage language. With respect to measures of attainment we suggest that heritage speakers seeming disadvantage disappears if they are not tested on grammaticality judgment tasks. With respect to selective transfer effects, we suggest re-learners may implicitly strive to increase the typological distance between their childhood language and the language of classroom instruction. These findings have implications for models of L3/Ln learning: the Cumulative Enhancement Model, the Typological Proximity Model, and the L2-Status Factor Model. The data discussed in this paper are most consistent with the latter model, but they also highlight the significance of the typological distance between languages under acquisition.