I investigate the phenomenon of receptive bilinguals – people who are fluent in one language, but say that they “understand but cannot speak another”. They are fluent in English, and have receptive knowledge of Inuktitut, an Eskimo-Aleut language. They are heritage speakers because they were exposed to Inuktitut through family transmission but have not learned it completely.
In my thesis, I explored comprehension of functional morphology (tense, aspect, agreement, and case suffixes) by Labrador Inuit who understand but don’t speak their ancestral language, that they call Inuttitut or Inuttut (a dialect of Inuktitut). It turned out that even low-proficiency bilinguals have at least some grammatical knowledge, but it is not the same as in fluent speakers. Some linguistic variables are robust, some are missing, and others are present, but receptive bilinguals have difficulties in mapping between features and morphemes (they don’t always know which morpheme is appropriate in a given instance).
For my postdoctoral project, I tested comprehension and production of noun incorporation by heritage receptive bilinguals and those who had undergone adult attrition of Baffin dialects of Inuktitut living in Ottawa. Noun incorporation is a structure in which a noun appears inside a verb. As it does not occur in commonly studied heritage languages, its knowledge in a heritage language has not been studied before. It has a number of morphological and syntactic properties involved, and so is a very interesting variable to investigate in the context of asymmetric bilingualism and reduced exposure to Inuktitut in the process of acquisition. The results revealed that syntactic properties of incorporated nouns (having a fixed position, not allowing case markers) are not problematic for heritage speakers, but case morphology (which case ending to use) is difficult, with or without incorporation. This is consistent with the Morphological Bottleneck Hypothesis. Adult attrition, on the other hand, does not affect noun incorporation or case.