"I Understand Everything You Say, I Just Don’t Speak It": The Role of Morphology in the Comprehension of Spanish by Receptive Heritage Bilinguals
AuthorHolmes, Bonnie Christina
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis study contributes to what is known about the nature of unbalanced bilingualism that emerges in language contact situations by examining the morphological knowledge of Spanish receptive heritage bilinguals (RHBs). RHBs were exposed to Spanish in their homes and communities but received formal schooling in English. These bilinguals have been described as being "on the verge of culminating the language shift towards English monolingualism" (Beaudrie, 2009a, p. 86), although despite this they report the ability to understand but not speak their heritage language. While the interpretation and production of inflectional morphology are difficult for more proficient heritage bilinguals (Montrul, 2008, 2009), little is known about the extent to which knowledge of morphology is measurable in HRBs or how it contributes to their ability to comprehend spoken Spanish. To answer these questions, 33 adult Spanish RHBs completed four, aurally-presented on- and off-line experimental tasks designed to assess their underlying grammatical competence, their receptive comprehension skills, and their proficiency without requiring that participants speak, read or write in Spanish. These tasks and the skills they assessed are listed below. 1) A self-paced, aural grammaticality judgment task examined whether RHBs have access to the rules that govern the well-formedness of specific inflectional morphemes, including gender and subject/verb agreement, as well as tense, aspect, and mood morphemes. 2) A morpheme interpretation task assessed whether RHBs interpret the meaning supplied by bound morphemes and distinguish between semantic contrasts. 3) A contextualized listening comprehension task measured the listening comprehension abilities of RHBs. 4) An elicited imitation task measured the proficiency of RHBs. The results of this study show that RHBs do have underlying morphological competence and are able to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical morphemes despite their limited language skills in other domains. Additionally, these bilinguals interpret the meaning supplied by bound morphemes, although access to the rules governing both the structure and the semantics of these morphemes decreases in accordance with the order in which they were acquired in childhood. RHBs understand the majority of what they hear when listening to spoken Spanish, and on average their proficiency ranges from low to intermediate levels. An analysis of the linear relationship between the results of the four experimental tasks revealed that the extent to which listening comprehension abilities and proficiency correspond to morphological knowledge in Spanish RHBs is dependent on the degree of access that these bilinguals have to the semantic information provided by functional morphemes. The results of this study show that while the core syntax of Spanish RHBs is intact, semantic knowledge may not have been mapped to certain morphemes during the acquisition process. These results are analyzed in tandem with various hypotheses that have been recently put forth to account for the linguistic outcomes of contact bilingualism, and an argument is made for considering heritage grammars as completely acquired but distinct language varieties.
Degree ProgramGraduate College