Say you’re an adult living and working in Germany. You spent your entire childhood learning German, but as soon as you got back home from school the only language you could hear your parents speak was Turkish. You are what researchers call a citizen with heritage language bilingualism (HLB) – an individual growing up with a home language different from the dominant one in society. Understanding the specificities of your heritage language (HL) grammar has been a burgeoning subfield of bilingualism for the past 25 years. HLB is of great interest due to the puzzling variations of native first language competences between monolingual citizens and subgroups of bilinguals. “There is a vast amount of literature showing that the grammatical competence of heritage language speakers differs from that of monolinguals of the same age and socio-economic category,” says Fatih Bayram, Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at the Arctic University of Norway. “Our role is to investigate HLBs in the context of growing immigration.” The BLINK (Blingual Literacy and Input Knowledge Outcomes: Tracing Heritage Language Bilingual Development) project pitches into this greater effort by focusing on the rarely studied age category of 10 to 16 year-old HLB children from the Turkish diaspora in Germany and Norway. It builds upon earlier HLB work which, while focusing on adult subjects, identified significant and perplexing differences in HLB outcomes. “Some have very different linguistic outcomes compared to their monolingual counterparts. But we’ve also seen cases where both are virtually indistinguishable, or some subjects claim to understand their heritage language while not being able to speak it at all,” Bayram explains. Most of these studies resulted in the same hypothesis. Divergences and convergences from expected monolingual baselines were, in fact, a by-product of differences in language exposure and use during the transition stages from childhood to early adulthood. With the BLINK project, Bayram wanted to test and verify this hypothesis.
The uniqueness and variety of bilingual outcomes
“The project does three things, it: tests linguistic competence over time during the focus age period; investigates to what extent various factors, such as access to literacy, explain variations in performance; and combines behavioural and processing tools to understand the underlying nature of heritage language grammatical competence,” adds Bayram. With this method, BLINK hopes to unveil both how and why perplexing outcomes of HLB tend to arise. As Bayram puts it: “The project returns to the most understudied, yet crucial age range of HLB to uncover the reasons behind typical outcomes. It does so in an innovative manner, by combining oral production, online eye tracking and offline comprehension experiments.” As the project comes to an end in August 2020, Bayram hopes it can help counter minority language loss over time. Early results already indicate how high exposure to HL education and literacy tends to correlate with limited differences between the grammatical competences of monolingual and HLB subjects. “BLINK also provides further evidence that when heritage language grammars differ from their standard baselines, they still show systematicity and obey the principles of natural language. This provides important insights into the emergence of new language varieties during contact situations,” Bayram notes. BLINK findings should ultimately help policymakers, educators, parents and the HLBs themselves to realise that there is value in retaining ancestral languages. Bayram hopes its results will destigmatise bilingual immigrants and their cultural heritage. She would also like it to make other people realise how their distinct use of their heritage language is a richness and only a reflection of their cross-cultural reality.
BLINK, Turkish, diaspora, childhood, bilingual, HLB, Heritage Language Bilingualism