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This study investigates how heritage speakers interpret compound words in Spanish. These speakers never completely acquired, or possibly lost, aspects of Spanish as their first language, as English became the dominant language sometime in childhood (Montrul, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008; Polinsky, 2004, 2007; Silva-Corvalán 1994, 2003; Valdés 1995).  The study compares Mexican-American heritage speakers that live in Laredo, Texas with a Spanish dominant control group that lives in Mexico. Two hundred and forty five Mexican-Americans university students that speak a border dialect of Spanish participated in this study. Group A (31 late sequential bilinguals) includes L2 learners who acquired Spanish monolingually in Mexico and learned English after age 12 when they emigrated to the United States. Group B (60 early sequential bilinguals) includes speakers who acquired Spanish monolingually in Mexico or in the home but came into contact with English at approximately age 6 when they started school.  Group C (154 simultaneous bilinguals) includes speakers who acquired Spanish and English simultaneously at home and for whom English has always been the language of instruction and the dominant language in most social contexts. The control group (Group D) consists of 27 native Spanish speakers. 


The study is based on the interpretation of two specific nominal patterns of Spanish compounding: [N+N]N (e.g., obra cumbre “masterpiece,” lit. “work summit”) and [V+N]N (e.g., pelagatos “poor man,” lit. “peel+cats”), which have been studied extensively in child language acquisition research.  It was predicted that the amount of exposure heritage language speakers have to English would determine whether or not they interpret compounds in Spanish as they do compounds in English. Given that Spanish heritage language speakers who have acquired the V-O order before the critical age of 12 are familiar with the conventional mechanism of word formation with the V-N configuration, it was also predicted that heritage language speakers would interpret [V+N]N more accurately than [N+N]N compounds regardless of their degree of English-dominance. It was also predicted that semantic transparency/opacity would play a role in accurate interpretation. 


Patricia Garza de González: The Interpretation of N-N and V+N Spanish Compounds by Heritage Speakers

To test these hypotheses, participants were classified according to their age of L1/L2 acquisition. This was followed by an interpretation task in which the participants selected the correct definition for 40 compound words in Spanish. The findings support the hypotheses that years of contact with English influence the speaker’s interpretation of these two Spanish compound types in terms of their headedness and transparency. Scores across the board show a 69 percent or better accuracy. This suggests that in spite of the low frequency of compound words in the input and reduced language use, there is robustness when it comes to the interpretation of both nominal compounds by all bilingual types. Results also show an interpretation continuum with advantages for late bilinguals, the group with fewer years of contact with English. The earlier speakers came in contact with English and the longer they have maintained contact with it, the more difficulties they encountered to correctly interpret the meaning of the compound. All groups interpreted [V+N]N more accurately than [N+N]N compounds regardless of their degree of English-dominance. 

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