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Back to basics: Incomplete knowledge of Differential Object Marking in Spanish heritage speakers*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2009

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Address for correspondence: Silvina Montrul, Department of Linguistics and Department of Spanish, Italian & Portuguese, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 4080 Foreign Languages Building, MC-176, 707 South Mathews Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801,


The obligatory use of the preposition a with animate, specific direct objects in Spanish (Juan conoce a María “Juan knows Maria”) is a well-known instance of Differential Object Marking (DOM; Torrego, 1998; Leonetti, 2004). Recent studies have documented the loss and/or incomplete acquisition of several grammatical features in Spanish heritage speakers (Silva-Corvalán, 1994; Montrul, 2002), including DOM (Montrul, 2004a). This study assesses the extent of incomplete knowledge of DOM in Spanish heritage speakers raised in the United States by comparing it with knowledge of DOM in fully competent native speakers. Experiment 1 examined whether omission of a affected grammatical competence, as measured by the linguistic behavior of 67 heritage speakers and 22 monolingual speakers in an oral production task and in a written acceptability judgment task. Experiment 2 followed up on the results of the acceptability judgment task with 13 monolingual speakers and 69 heritage speakers, and examined whether problems with DOM generalize to other instances of structural and inherent dative case, including ditransitive verbs and gustar-type psychological verbs. Results of the two experiments confirmed that heritage speakers' recognition and production of DOM is probabilistic, even for speakers with advanced proficiency in Spanish. This suggests that many heritage speakers' grammars may not actually instantiate inherent case. We argue that language loss under reduced input conditions in childhood is, in this case, like “going back to basics”: it leads to simplification of the grammar by letting go of the non-core options, while retaining the core functional structure.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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The research presented in this article was conducted under the generous support of a Beckman Award from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board to Silvina Montrul. We are grateful to all the students who participated in the study, as well as to Rebecca Foote, Silvia Perpiñán, Dan Thornhill, Susana Vidal, Ben McMurry, Brad Dennison, Alyssa Martoccio and Lucía Alzaga, who helped with data collection and transcriptions for Experiment 1. We thank Kim Potowski for assisting us with testing in Chicago for Experiment 2. A version of Experiment 2 was presented at the 6th International Symposium on Bilingualism (ISB), Hamburg, May 30 – June 2, 2007. We thank the audience at ISB for their invaluable questions and suggestions. We also thank Carmen Silva-Corvalán for her stellar editorial work, four anonymous BLC reviewers and Abbas Benmamoun, Rakesh Bhatt, José Ignacio Hualde, Tania Ionin, Johanne Paradis and Maria Polinsky for their thorough and insightful feedback. All remaining errors are our own.


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