Our next HL2C seminar will take place on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, from 12pm to 1pm (Dublin, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London). The talk is co-organized with Lancaster’s SLLAT Research Group.


Magdalena Grose-Hodge (The University of Birmingham)


Are the heritage and dominant languages of early bilinguals less complex and less fluent than that of monolinguals? A comparison of linguistic abilities of pre-adolescent Polish Heritage Speakers and monolingual controls.

How to join:

Our seminars are free to attend. Simply sign up to the HL2C Mailing List to receive the link to join us via Microsoft Teams link. You do not need a Teams account to access the talk.


Background: With an estimated half of the world using more than one language in everyday life, bilingualism is a norm rather than an exception. However, researchers in the field of language acquisition and processing traditionally focused on monolinguals and viewed bilingual speakers simply as “two monolinguals in one person”. Research into differences between monolingual and bilingual performance and processing is not only relatively new but has also been producing conflicting findings, which fuels the existing social ambivalence relating to the acquisition of two languages in childhood. As a result, many parents and teachers question whether the effort needed to maintain both languages is worth the outcome or worry that speaking a minority language at home may hamper their offspring’s achievement in the dominant language as children “may get confused”. However, studying heritage speakers (here defined as early bilinguals of a minority language (Montrul, 2006:161) is important not only from the point of educational policymaking but it is also central to our understanding of the architecture of language as it can offer a window into bilingual minds. Therefore, the population, which was first studied mainly by applied linguists, is now becoming of interest to theoretical linguists investigating the role of input and maturational factors in language acquisition.

What makes heritage speakers an interesting group is that they acquire their HL as their first language, yet their linguistic competence is often different from that of monolingual native speakers, which has led to the formulation of the Incomplete Acquisition Hypothesis (Polinsky, 2006; Montrul, 2008). According to this, certain patterns, especially those that typically develop later on in life, are not fully acquired in HS’s minds. The term, however, received a great amount of criticism (see Otheguy, 2016; Kupisch and Rothman, 2018), and has now been abandoned in favour of “divergent acquisition” (Polinsky, 2018), which emphasises differences without suggesting deficiencies. It is this divergent competence that is of interest in this paper and 3 aspects of proficiency are discussed in the context of speech samples: fluency, syntactic complexity and lexical diversity. Additionally, receptive grammar is also tapped into as there is a documented imbalance between HS’ receptive and productive skills with the former usually being much stronger.

The study: focuses on 7-9-year-old preadolescents growing up in Polish families living in the UK, whose speech samples have been collected, transcribed and coded for lexical and syntactic complexity, and fluency, and subsequently analysed. The results have been compared to monolingual control groups through multiple regression modelling.

Results: Although bilinguals are slightly less fluent, they generally fall within the norms for monolingual speakers for most variables. The most interesting finding, though, is that their language appears to be more complex syntactically than that of monolinguals in both heritage and dominant languages. This provides further evidence that HS’ language is not incomplete but that the outcome is divergent from that of monolinguals. It could also shed light on the role of creativity and imitation in language acquisition and cultural transmission, and provide further evidence that children imitate selectively when they have a better understanding of the function of a given construction or linguistic element. When the function is not fully understood, they imitate more faithfully (Klinger, Mayor and Bannard, 2016).


Klinger, J., Mayor, J. and Bannard, C. (2016) ‘Children’s Faithfulness in Imitating Language Use Varies Cross-Culturally, Contingent on Prior Experience’, Child Development, 87(3), pp. 820–833. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12503.

Kupisch, T. and Rothman, J. (2018) ‘Terminology matters! Why difference is not incompleteness and how early child bilinguals are heritage speakers’, International Journal of Bilingualism, 22(5), pp. 564–582. doi: 10.1177/1367006916654355.

Montrul, S. (2008) ‘Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism: Re-examining the Age Factor’, in. Montrul, S. A. (2006) ‘Incomplete acquisition in bilingualism as an instance of language change’, pp. 379–400. doi: 10.1075/LALD.42.22MON.

Otheguy, R. (2016) ‘The linguistic competence of secondgeneration bilinguals’, pp. 301–319. doi: 10.1075/RLLT.9.16OTH.

Polinsky, M. (2006) ‘Incomplete acquisition: American Russian’, Journal of Slavic Linguistics, 14, pp. 191–262.

Polinsky, M. (2018) Heritage Languages and Their Speakers. Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/9781107252349.