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Heritage Tamil: A case study in conducting linguistic research that is grounded in community

This is the abstract of a TULCON14 presentation.

Shankhalika Srikanth (University of Toronto)

Toronto’s diverse linguistic landscape is home to speakers of Indigenous languages,  English, French, and a wide range of heritage languages. Of this latter category, fluency  in a heritage language (HL) varies across speakers and within an individual speaker’s  lifespan, and is affected by factors including generation, birth order, home language(s), dominant language influence, and individual interest (Polinsky, 2018).  

For many people, speaking their HL is key to maintaining a link to their culture.  However, increased contact with the dominant language generally leads to subtractive  bilingualism at the expense of the HL. This loss is often not realized until it is either too  late or difficult to recover. This is why, increasingly, parents who speak the homeland  variety of their language and wish to pass it down to their children will enrol their  children in community-run “Sunday school” style language classes.  

I myself am a semi-fluent speaker of heritage Indian Tamil. I attended a Sunday-school  language class as a child, but found that this has not resulted in any significant retention  of my language. There are two reasons for this: 1) the classes merely reiterated what I  already knew and did not focus on more advanced grammatical structures that I continue  to struggle with, and 2) because I was only a child, I did not yet realize the importance of  learning my language and the likelihood of losing it if I wasn’t committed, so I was not  motivated during the language learning process. A key but understated requirement for effective language learning is sustained motivation. 

Thus, I decided to return to the Sunday-school I attended as a child to investigate: What,  if any, grammatical structures are lacking amongst the majority of the students, and  which, if any, have already been acquired by most students? Additionally, what practical  teaching strategies can be employed to generate interest in language learning, especially  as pertains to the online environment necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic? The  results of my ongoing research are being used by the school’s teachers to guide and  enhance the existing curriculum by incorporating more form-based lessons that target the  poorly acquired grammatical constructions we have isolated. 

My research is highly collaborative, as my methodology and goals are motivated by the  needs of the school community. Thus I have adopted a hands-on role in the Sunday school in order to assist the teachers, and this has allowed me to develop and test much  more nuanced hypotheses than would have been possible in a traditional “lab” setting. 

In addition to contributing to the theory on heritage language acquisition with an under studied language, I hope to demonstrate how pursuing research that is driven by  community needs and committing to a relationship with the community that is founded  on the principle of reciprocity leads to better outcomes for the community and opens more avenues of research for the linguist.


Kisselev, O., Dubinina, I., Polinsky, M. (2020). Form-Focused Instruction in the Heritage  Language Classroom: Toward Research-Informed Heritage Language Pedagogy.  Frontiers in Education, 5, 53. 

Polinsky, M. (2018). Heritage languages and their speakers. Cambridge University  Press.