In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Heritage Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definitions
  • Journals
  • Related Concepts and Phenomena
  • Perception
  • Production
  • Syntax
  • Lexical Knowledge
  • Semantics
  • Discourse
  • Arabic
  • Armenian
  • Chinese
  • Finnish
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  • Inuttitut
  • Korean
  • Polish
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Linguistics Heritage Languages
Maria Polinsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0067


Heritage languages are spoken by early bilinguals, simultaneous or sequential, whose home language (L1) is severely restricted because of insufficient input. As a result, they can understand the home language and may speak it to some degree but feel more at ease in the dominant language of their society. The study of heritage languages is a relatively new field in linguistics. It draws on research on first language and language acquisition, bilingualism (as heritage speakers are a subset of bilinguals), and language attrition. Researchers have taken two main approaches in studies of heritage language: research that examines patterns found in heritage languages from the standpoint of universal grammar, on the one hand, and research that emphasizes sociolinguistic or more applied aspects of heritage languages, on the other.

General Overviews

There is no single textbook or survey book focusing specifically on heritage speakers, because the field of inquiry is relatively new and has not yet completely separated from structural or social investigations of bilingualism. These overviews provide a helpful discussion of the range of issues involved in heritage language study. Polinsky and Kagan 2007 and Benmamoun, et al. 2010 present a broad range of topics related to heritage language study; Montrul 2008 and Cook 2003 discuss heritage languages in the more general context of bilingualism. Brinton, et al. 2008; Seliger and Vago 1991; Köpke, et al. 2007; and Schmid 2010 present a broad range of case studies that place heritage language investigation in a more general context.

  • Benmamoun, E., S. Montrul, and M. Polinsky. 2010. Prolegomena to heritage linguistics. White paper, Harvard Univ.

    A discussion of the range of issues involved in heritage language study, from linguistics to language pedagogy.

  • Brinton, Donna M., Olga Kagan, and Susan Bauckus, eds. 2008. Heritage language education: A new field emerging. New York: Routledge.

    A collection of articles presenting a multidisciplinary perspective on the acquisition, structure, and teaching of heritage languages.

  • Cook, Vivian, ed. 2003. Effects of the second language on the first. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    Discussion of variance among bilinguals that addresses structural effects of second language as seen in an individual’s first language.

  • Köpke, Barbara, Monika S. Schmid, Merel Keijzer, and Susan Dostert, eds. 2007. Language attrition: Theoretical perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Discussion of extralinguistic and linguistic factors leading to home language (L1) restructuring in adulthood; continues a number of themes raised by Nancy C. Dorian.

  • Montrul, Silvina A. 2008. Incomplete acquisition in bilingualism: Re-examining the age factor. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    An investigation into the relationships between attrition, incomplete acquisition, and fossilization in first language (L1) and second language (L2). These issues are discussed with regard to age-of-acquisition and critical-period theories.

  • Polinsky, Maria, and Olga Kagan. 2007. Heritage languages: In the “wild” and in the classroom. Language and Linguistics Compass 1.5: 368–395.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00022.x

    An overview of heritage speakers (narrowly defined) from the standpoint of their linguistic characteristics and relearning potential in adulthood.

  • Schmid, Monika S., ed. 2010. Special issue: New perspectives on L1 attrition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 13.1.

    A collection of articles documenting case studies of several heritage languages and examining the methodology of heritage language research.

  • Schmid, Monika S., Barbara Köpcke, Merel Keijzer, and Lina Weilemar, eds. 2004. First language attrition: Interdisciplinary perspectives on methodological issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    This volume contains a useful annotated bibliography on language attrition (through 2004), which is relevant for heritage language study as well.

  • Seliger, Herbert W., and Robert M. Vago, eds. 1991. First language attrition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620720

    A collective monograph discussing sociolinguistic and structural issues pertaining to language attrition. A collection of case studies on a number of languages.

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