Joe Salmons – University of Copenhagen

What Heritage German bilinguals say about language

Joe Salmons (University of Wisconsin – Madison)

Heritage language communities can provide key data for debated issues of language and immigration. Past work, for instance, shows that history is often misunderstood or misrepresented, e.g. Wilkerson & Salmons (2012) on German speakers not learning English. But what do speakers say about language in their own communities? I explore this among contemporary speakers, the last generation of bilinguals in their communities.

In previous WILAs and associated publications, language attitudes have been discussed in the context of understanding language structure, change or the construction of identity, e.g. Golden & Lanza, Johannessen & Laake, Hjelde on Norwegian, Larsson et al., Forlani, Hoffman & Kytö on Swedish, Kühl & Peterson on Danish, and Avineri on Yiddish. I build on that work, especially meta-linguistic commentary.

Drawing on folk linguistics, which “seeks to discover non-linguists’ beliefs about language in general” (Preston 1993:181), I examine what Wisconsin Heritage German speakers say about language in the course of semi-structured sociolinguistic interviews. All comments about language have been catalogued, about 150 meta-linguistic comments. Issues raised range widely, showing rich awareness of dialectal and sociolinguistic variation, standard language ideology, the value of bilingualism, and so on. I focus especially on comments that have implications for current issues of language and immigration in the U.S. Speakers comment often on the value of bilingualism, e.g. “My mother encouraged us, well she thought it was fine that we could speak German, too. She said it's always good to know another language.” Another frequent topic is language maintenance, past and present: “Whether you were Norwegian, Swedish, German, Swiss, French, Polish, people like to hang on to their Muttersprach as long as they could and they wanted their Kind auch zum lerne.”

These bilinguals typically show high awareness of linguistic variation, social and regional, and express positive attitudes toward bilingualism in general. These findings support a major strand of folk linguistic work: Non-linguists understand a tremendous amount about language. The perspectives of such speakers can inform not only linguistic research but inform pressing social concerns in the US today.


  • Preston, Dennis. 1993. The uses of folk linguistics. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 3.181-259.
  • Wilkerson, Miranda & Joseph Salmons. 2012. Linguistic Marginalities: Becoming American without learning English. Journal of Transnational American Studies 4.2.