Update: I had this whole post written about my personal observations on the a kind of sub-stratification between ‘native’ speakers like myself and my friend, and monolinguals. I decided to call us “second class native speakers”. Two weeks later, while I was still finalizing this post (’cause believe it or not, I spend more than one sitting pushing out these posts), I attended a two-day conference on this very subject. So at least my observations aren’t entirely crazy. But on the other hand, it makes me wonder how many times I’ll end up reinventing the wheel, simply from mere lack of exposure.

As it turns out, I was accessing two different phenomena: heritage language speakers, and semilinguals (now a somewhat contentious term). But of course, in my head, I somehow combined the two. It all started in my linguistics classes, when my Syntax textbook told me:

(1) *Bill kissed quietly his girlfriend

(2) Bill kissed his girlfriend quietly

I totally agree that (2) is more natural than (1); but at first blush, I wouldn’t have necessarily faulted a speaker if I heard him/her report that Bill had “kissed quietly his girlfriend”. After all, (1) isn’t exactly unclear, and there’s not clear ambiguity either.

Now, I should mention that despite my perennial doubts of my own handle on English, I was born and raised in Canada, and have written an award-winning essay in my undergraduate career, so I demonstrably have a pretty good command of academic English. And yet, because of my non-Caucasian ethnicity, I (and more terribly, my interlocutors) tend to attribute my moments of temporary disfluency (aka “brain farts”) as linguistic interference from my other mother tongue. You see, unlike “normal” Canadian kids, I did not grow up with parents who made friends with their geographical community. Instead, we only ever grew up with other recently naturalized Canadians who were of the same original culture as my parents. Which means that a lot of the conventionalized ESL speak has become “acceptable” to me. (Whether I’m likely to generate them is a question that in the act of asking, becomes impossible to ascertain through introspection.)

Obviously, this hasn’t impacted my writing skills too poorly; I tended to consistently score above 80 on my English essays. But linguistically, I would encounter “non-native” phrases that, perhaps ungrammatical or unnatural, would be perfectly intelligible, and said intelligibility became my sole criterion for whether a given phrase was considered “authentic” English. One salient example for me is the whole issue of wh-phrases (or, according to Chp 3 of my Syntax textbook, complement phrases), which modify, but follow the head noun. Things like

(3a) “the king with the knife

or

(3b) “the goldfish who danced with the wind“,

where the underlined phrase is additional description. But in Chinese and Japanese, those semantic equivalents would precede the noun, yielding phrases like

(4a) “the knife-bearing king”

and

(4b) “the danced-with-wind goldfish”

Now, (4a) is obviously okay, but (4b) would take more convincing, and a lot of contextualization. So, as it turns out, I’m what the research literature would consider a second-generation heritage language speaker.

So heritage languages (HL) are essentially what was the mother tongue for an individual until a second language (usually the official language of one’s new country of residence) supersedes and dominates it. This is often a result of im/migration. So in my case, being born to naturalized Canadians, the language at home was Mandarin, and it remained my dominant language until I was about 5 or 6, at which point English started surpassing it, and dominating.

An obvious omission in the description above on HLs is the proficiency that one might have. As it turns out, the virtue of being a HL speaker does not denote anything about one’s proficiency in that HL. However, it has been noted that HLers re/learning their HL are more likely to excel than “pure” L2 learners of the same language. (As always, we must be careful not to apply statistics to hypothetical individuals, but on average, HLers generally score a good median between L1 and L2 speakers.) So even if my parents had stopped speaking Mandarin at the house after I started going to school, the fact that it was my mother tongue and my dominant language for the first six years of life, means that I would have a distinct advantage in producing and distinguishing Mandarin phonemes compared to a person who’s had NO prior exposure to Mandarin before taking Mandarin classes.

On the other hand, is a diminishing term “semilinguals”, which is kinda the dark side of bilingualism. These are speakers that grew up bilingual, but for some reason or other (lack of education, exposure, home life stability, etc, &c) imperfectly acquire either language. The criteria for being semilingual tends to vary in the literature, but the general gist is “can get by conversationally, but unable to write or parse complex sentences, as might be used in academic settings”.

So whatever the contention of the nomenclature, such individuals definitely exist. The more important thing to ask in Linguistics, is whether and how such semilinguals might fill in those linguistics gaps. But tragically, such individuals usually lack the introspection to recognise that their own linguistic abilities are less-than-standard, since they demonstrably get by with their daily conversations with friends — which translates to a lack of awareness that they even need to improve somehow. Even if they use slightly odd diction (such as “I know your history” instead of “I heard about what happened last night”), the intent is usually clear, and the generous and polite listener would just let it slide.

Sometimes, I give in to my paranoia, and secretly dissect my own speech, looking for traces of semilingualism. But other times, I look at the speech of my peers, who are incontestably semilingual, and realize that maybe I’m just living too far deeply within my own head. Imagination and Paranoia are two dangerous tools to wield, when Reality isn’t around to temper them.

So there you have it. I’m a native speaker of English (although strictly speaking, not by birth), a HL speaker of Mandarin and Cantonese, and a second-language speaker of Japanese and German. All other languages that I’ve dabbled in, aren’t even at the semilingual stage; I’d pity anyone whose survival depended on my French, Hebrew, or Russian.

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