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Language maintenance or language shift? A holistic look at heritage speakers of Polish and Russian in Germany

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Brehmer, University of Greifswald, Germany

Guest lecture on Thursday, June 11th, 18:00-20:00, Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), Stephanssaal, Postgebäude, Logenstr. 9-10

Heritage speakers are generally defined as “early bilingual speakers of ethnic minority languages who have differing degrees of command of their first or family language, ranging from mere receptive competence in the first language to balanced competence in the two languages” (Benmamoun, Montrul & Polinsky 2010: 8). The developmental profile of a typical heritage speaker includes that he/she is born to a family where another language (in our case: Polish or Russian) than the societal majority language (in our case: German) is spoken. Thus, he/she receives input in the heritage language mainly within the family at home, but he/she is regularly exposed to the dominant language of the host community outside the family. Typically, around school age, heritage language input is significantly reduced, as he/she gradually shifts in dominance towards the majority language.  

Polish and Russian belong to the most widely spoken heritage languages in Germany, due to massive immigration from Poland and the successor states of the former Soviet Union to Germany mainly in the early 1990ies. Since then, the first generation immigrants gave birth to a second generation of speakers of Polish or Russian in Germany, i.e. “heritage speakers” in the sense defined above. The situation of Polish and Russian as “heritage languages” in Germany has been described from quite different linguistic perspectives. Sociolinguistic studies examine the different extralinguistic factors that contribute to language maintenance or language shift within the Russian-speaking community in Germany either by relying on questionnaire data or by describing individual language biographies. The second approach which dominates research on current Russian-German bilingualism concentrates on outcomes of language contact and language change with regard to individual linguistic levels. Interestingly, there is not much research that tries to systematically link sociolinguistic and contact-linguistic approaches.
In my talk which is based on data from an ongoing research project I am going to adopt a more holistic approach to the linguistic situation of Polish and Russian heritage speakers in Germany. By looking at some case studies from our sample, my aim is to compare the linguistic pro¬ficiency of the heritage speakers in both languages (i.e. Polish/Russian and German) with regard to different kinds of proficiencies (reading and listening comprehension, oral and written speech production, lexical and grammatical knowledge) with language attitudes and language learning biographies of the heritage speakers and their parents. Thus, the focus will be on the family as a crucial site of language management by investigating the efforts both children and parents put into maintaining skills in the heritage language and their effects on different linguistic levels.