LLI Meeting: Dec 2, 2013

As the semester comes to an end, this week we have Marina Sherkina-Lieber, a recent grad from the University of Toronto, and a post-doc working with Dr. Kumiko Murasugi,  presenting her current research on “Inuktitut morphosyntax, noun incorporation, and heritage receptive bilinguals”.

“Heritage speakers are individuals who were exposed to a minority language by family transmission, but ended up not being fluent in it, as it has been overshadowed by the majority language. Heritage receptive bilinguals are a subset of low-proficiency heritage speakers who claim understanding the family language, but having little or no speaking skills in it. Typical heritage speaker studies are done with immigrant populations, but psycholinguistically, the situation of endangered aboriginal languages is the same – including certain dialects of Inuktitut, an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken in Northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.

What kind of linguistic knowledge underlies such performance? What accounts for a wider than usual gap between comprehension and production? It has been shown previously that for heritage speakers, inflectional morphology and higher syntax are vulnerable to reduced input during acquisition, while core syntax is more resilient (Benmamoun, Montrul & Polinsky, 2010). Heritage speakers prefer analytic constructions to synthetic ones, possibly because of their difficulties with morphology. However, receptive bilinguals have not been previously studied as a distinct population within heritage speakers, and, when mentioned, often were not credited with grammar knowledge.

My research in the Labrador dialect of Inuktitut (Sherkina-Lieber, 2011, etc.) showed that even lowest-proficiency heritage receptive bilinguals have at least some grammatical knowledge, though in many aspects it differs from that of fluent speakers. I found two types of incomplete knowledge. The first is absence of a category/feature, resulting in underspecification (e.g. remoteness degrees in tense morphemes are missing from heritage receptive bilinguals’ grammar). The second is presence of a category/feature, but difficulty mapping between features and morphemes that spell them out (e.g. heritage receptive bilinguals know that nouns must bear case markers, but have difficulty identifying the correct marker for a given noun). The latter results in inconsistent performance, where errors occur alongside correct production and comprehension.

In my current study, I explore one of the structures that has not been tested in heritage languages  – noun incorporation, where a noun root appears inside a complex verb. I am planning to test its comprehension and production by Inuit with receptive knowledge of Baffin dialects of Inuktitut living in Ottawa in order to find out what they know about morphosyntactic properties of this structure. I also would like to compare sentences with noun incorporation or with a non-incorporated object noun – which of them have better chances ? On one hand, noun incorporation involves an extra (morpho)syntactic process that results in a more synthetic structure; on the other hand, a non-incorporated object noun has to have a case marker. Results will provide more information on the role of reduced input in acquisition of morphology and syntax.”

We will commence as usual, on Monday at 2:30 to 4pm in VSSM 5220.

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