Acrisio Pires was a keynote speaker at the Conference on Formal Approaches to Heritage Language, April 21-22, 2012, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with the talk “Heritage Bilingual Acquisition and Syntactic Change.”
The generative perspective on the nature of syntactic knowledge is that children in general successfully develop native linguistic competence more or less effortlessly, independently of deficiencies or indeterminacy in the nature of their primary linguistic data. This attests to the resilient nature of the faculty of language and its development. However, in contexts in which child bilingual speakers show distinctions in their grammars in comparison to monolingual speakers it is often argued that the bilinguals have undergone incomplete acquisition or attrition. This has been often argued in the acquisition literature especially in the context of bilingual acquisition within predominantly monolingual communities.
I proposed a different perspective on these phenomena, by arguing that the first language grammar of so-called heritage speakers (the grammar of their home language, in the usual case) should not be treated as deficient, but rather as corresponding to independent grammatical systems (I-languages) that are qualitatively equivalent to, yet potentially distinct in different respects from monolingual grammars. In addition, I argued that part of the differences between monolingual and heritage bilingual grammars can be formally accounted for as the result of natural processes leading to language variation and change, especially in the domain of syntax.