The Heritage Language Variation and Change (HLVC) project is based in Toronto, but its aim is far-reaching. With the goal of documenting the languages brought by immigrants to Canada, and then analyzing those recordings based on variation among the speakers, the HLVC project is doing something that could be done in few other places than the multicultural city of Toronto.
For example, according to StatCan, 20% of Canadians (6.8 million) say their mother tongue is a language other than English or French; however, in Toronto 32% (1.8 million) say they regularly speak a language other than English or French at home. This provides fertile ground for research on heritage languages as Toronto’s population grows by several hundred thousand each year—and many of these new Torontonians bring languages with them.
For background, a heritage language is a language that is brought to a country—in this case Canada—that is not one of the official languages in that country. For example, there was a huge number of Italian immigrants to Canada following the Second World War, my grandparents included, and they brought with them their Italian variety. The HLVC project conducts sociolinguistic interviews. A sociolinguistic interview is a largely open-ended conversation between a researcher and the interviewee. It is recorded, but otherwise it can be conducted in many ways, from asking questions from a list, to giving the interviewee something to read, to simply have a casual conversation. Interviews are done with these immigrants, and the children of immigrants, and the children of those children, and so on. This leads to the idea that as generations move forward, the language is passed on less often. Notions such as the idea that the language becomes rapidly anglicized, or is passed on less fully is central to HLVC research. However, it appears these things aren’t happening—at least not as expected, but more work needs to be done to have certainty.
This is the sort of project that is never truly complete, as there will always be new immigrant communities, and more research that can be done on the existing recordings; however, the research has already yielded some very interesting findings. Analyzing variation in heritage and minority languages is a fertile ground for contact-induced change, which means changes that take place due to two languages being in the same place, and in Toronto that is English and any heritage language. It is also an excellent opportunity to study code-mixing, which is when languages are mixed. This means in Toronto that a speaker of a heritage language may replace a forgotten word with the English equivalent. The HLVC project also focuses on how, and if, the heritage languages are passed on to future generations, and how that ties into the heritage speakers’ sense of identity. By identity, I mean the idea that as a descendant of Italian grandparents, how strongly do I feel I am Italian? To research these questions and ideas, the HLVC project searches out informants.
The informants—meaning the people who are interviewed in their heritage languages—have as close to a natural conversation as is possible during the interview. They also answer a set of questions to show how strongly they align themselves toward their heritage, and how strongly they align with a Canadian identity, and that can allow for some very interesting research. It is a relatively recent idea of sociolinguistics, but it has produced some very persuasive findings: a person’s feelings about his or her language and cultural identity can shape the role that language plays, and the way it is spoken. If, for example, someone does not feel particularly Ukrainian, and identifies more closely with a Canadian identity, they may use more English words in their Ukrainian speech, or use less Ukrainian overall. Whereas someone who still identifies strongly as Polish will likely refuse to use English substitutes for words that exist in Polish, and will try to use Polish wherever possible. This leads to the question of which languages to study from the myriad cultures and communities in Toronto.
Currently the languages being studied are: Italian, Ukrainian, Cantonese, Hungarian, Korean, Polish, Russian, and Faetar. The number of languages and communities being researched by the HLVC project is hoped to grow in the future, but these languages are a strong footing with which to begin.
The findings of the HLVC project are too numerous to go through here, but they make for an accessible and interesting read. However, here is a sample of the facts available at the HLVC website : Italian has been in Toronto for some time, and so only ~16% continue to speak it at home, whereas Korean represents a relatively new immigrant community, and as such ~66% of the population continues to use the language in the home.
The strength of the project comes from two key teams of players: the principal investigator Professor Naomi Nagy and her co-investigators, and the huge number of research assistants who have helped at all stages of the research. The HLVC project is constantly looking for interested students to help with all stages of the research: from conducting sociolinguistic interviews if the student is a confident speaker in the target language, to segmenting, transcribing, or coding the recordings and conducting and presenting analyses. A quick count shows at least 40 previous student research assistants, and more than a dozen currently working on the various languages.
Apart from First Nations peoples, the rest of us are all the descendants of immigrants, and so we have a heritage language. The HLVC project provides invaluable insight into how a language behaves once it arrives in a new country, and how its speakers share their language with their descendants.
To find out more about the HLVC project, to get involved, or to suggest speakers of the target languages follow the links on the page below:
Take care eh,
– Michael Iannozzi, and the Canadian Language Museum team
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