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Transfer effects in the interpretation of definite articles by Spanish heritage speakers



This study investigates the role of transfer from the stronger language by focusing on the interpretation of definite articles in Spanish and English by Spanish heritage speakers (i.e., minority language-speaking bilinguals) residing in the U.S., where English is the majority language. Spanish plural NPs with definite articles can express generic reference (Los elefantes tienen colmillos de marfil), or specific reference (Los elefantes de este zoológico son marrones). English plurals with definite articles can only have specific reference (The elephants in this zoo are brown), while generic reference is expressed with bare plural NPs (Elephants have ivory tusks). Furthermore, the Spanish definite article is preferred in inalienable possession constructions (Pedro levantó la mano “Peter raised the hand”), whereas in English the use of a definite article typically means that the body part belongs to somebody else (alienable possession). Twenty-three adult Spanish heritage speakers completed three tasks in Spanish (acceptability judgment, truth-value judgment, and picture–sentence matching tasks) and the same three tasks in English. Results show that the Spanish heritage speakers exhibited transfer from English into Spanish with the interpretation of definite articles in generic but not in inalienable possession contexts. Implications of this finding for the field of heritage language research and for theories of article semantics are discussed.


Corresponding author

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,


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The research reported in this article was conducted with the generous support of a grant from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board to Tania Ionin and Silvina Montrul. We want to thank our research assistants on this project, Alyssa Martoccio, Karen Zaransky, Eunice Chung and Lucía Alzaga, for their help collecting data as well as Ji-Hye Kim, Rachel Yoon and James Yoon for drawing the pictures used in the tasks reported. We also thank three reviewers from Bilingualism: Language and Cognition for their feedback and suggestions as well as Carmen Silva-Corvalán for her efficient editorial work. All remaining errors are ours.



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