Exploring Linguistic Characteristics of Heritage Persian speakers

Exploring Linguistic Characteristics of
Heritage Persian speakers
a preliminary study
Anousha Sedighi
Portland State University
Heritage Persian speakers at the university level in U.S.
- Recoded Spontaneous speech
(before entering language class)
-Class performance
(mixed class with L2 learners)
Persian has two distinct styles/registers:
• Spoken (Colloquial/Informal/Conversational)
the way native speakers converse (both in formal
& informal settings) (letters and Modern poetry)
• Written (Standard/Formal/Classical)
the way language is written, Media, also spoken by
 The written form is learned at school.
 Heritage speakers (not much formal education in
heritage language) so they fail to perform in the written
form of the language.
 They may not comprehend the written form.
Even if they do, producing such forms is not possible for
1) a. be-ræv-im! (written)
Let’s go!
b. be-r-im! (spoken) (HS’s comfort zone)
Let’s go!
 Another problem: in the usage of the honorific form.
Both spoken and written forms of Persian can be used in
honorific form when addressing people older than you or higher
in rank, position, or just people that you are not very close to:
2) mæn diruz
ro/ra did-æm
you.sg. Acc. saw-1sg.
I saw you yesterday
3) mæn diruz
ro/ra did-æm
yesterday you.pl Acc.
I saw you yesterday (addressing one person)
This is similar to the French “tu” and “vous” where the latter is
utilized for “politesse”.
 L2 learners seem to pick up this honorific rule faster
than heritage learners.
 This could possibly be because L2learners are more
mindful of cultural points where as heritage learners
generally assume they know more than they really do!
 Polinsky & Kagan (2007) report that heritage speakers have
up to 30 percent slower rate of speech than those of the native
 Heritage Persian speakers also speak slower than native
speakers (exact percentage not calculated) but definitely slower.
Heritage Persian speakers pronounce certain sounds
different than native speakers:
• The Persian letter “r” is has different phonemes based on
its location in the word.
“r” is pronounced as a trill at the beginning of a word such
as “”Rostæm”.
ii. “r” in the middle of a word is pronounced as a flap as in
“bæraye/for”, (similar to the American pronunciation of
iii. “r” is pronounced as a voiceless trill at the end of a word
 Heritage speakers of Persian are challenged when
pronouncing the middle “r”.
They tend to pronounce it the way “r” sounds in the
English word “merit”.
 Although heritage Persian speakers are most challenged
by the middle “r”, there are subtle differences in their
pronunciation of “r” in all three positions.
Another cause of accent is the sound “gh”:
Almost all of the heritage speakers (other than the ones who
are entirely fluent in speaking) pronounce the sound “gh” as “g”
which is the closest familiar sound in the dominant langue.
Two instances of “gh” in Persian:
4. ghæza
(voiced uvular stop)
5. hæghighæt (voiced velar fricative)
None of the above sounds exist in English so the closest
strategy is “g” the “velar stop”.
knowing that these are new sounds, L2 learners make a
conscious effort to capture the new sounds
(not always successful)
Heritage speakers have been using the wrong sounds in a
fossilized form (mainly without being corrected at home)
so its more difficult for them to use the correct sound.
 While “gh” is hard to achieve for heritage speakers,
“kh” which also doesn't exist in their dominant language
is much easier captured by heritage speakers and L2
This observation requires further exploration.
While the above sounds may cause in an accent for heritage
speakers, they almost always exhibit less accent than L2
Heritage speakers have much shorter utterances than
native speakers and show a significant t lower number of
embedded clauses(Polinsky 2008).
This is also true for heritage Persian speakers.
Also, Persian language produces much longer sentences
and sentences than English (dominant language).
That could also be a leading factor in producing shorter
utterances by heritage Persian speakers.
Heritage Persian speakers tend to stay away from:
• conditional clauses
• relative clauses
• and clauses with resumptive pronouns.
6) a. mærd-e
ke tu television-e hafte-ye pish
that inTV-is
week-ezafe before
The man who is on TV was here last week.
Instead they use a simplification strategy and simply say the
following by pointing to the man on TV.
b. un mærd-e hafte-ye pish
That man-indefinite
That man was here last week
before here
Tense distinction:
Heritage Persian speakers make no distinctions between certain tenses
such as “simple past” and “present perfect”.
7) mæn-æm
I-too there went-participle-1sg
I have gone there too.
8) mæn-æm
I went there too.
The verb in (7) consists of two vowels in a row “e” and “æ’
which for the ease of pronunciation and in the fast speech
neutralizes into one and only the second vowel will be
 Native speakers (because of their familiarity with the
written form of the language) can easily distinguish
between (7) and (8), while heritage speakers have no
distinction in comprehending or producing these two
tenses (simple past & present perfect).
Heritage Persian speakers are very strong in production
of Imperatives and its vowel harmony while L2 learners
struggle with imperative and its vowel harmony.
This could be attributed to the fact that the first and
most frequent form of verb that children encounter is
Imperatives. Commands such as:
bokhor/eat! - bekhab/sleep! – saket bash/be quiet!
are known by any heritage Persian language learner even
those with very basic level of proficiency.
Word Order:
Persian is a Pro-drop language with the underlying word order:
(subject)-(adjunct)-direct object-indirect object-verb
Scrambling and Topicalization are very common so the Persian
word order is not as strict as English.
Heritage speakers have a good command of word order and
seldom transfer the English word order into their utterance.
L2 students however, struggle a lot with the word order. They
often use the verb right after the subject (transfer the English rule)
even at advance level.
Future Tense:
Future tense is seldom used in spoken form (simple
present can refer to future). Heritage speakers almost have
no knowledge of this tense.
L2 students learn the future tense much easier than HLs.
 Generic Nouns:
Persian uses singular nouns in generic form.
9) (mæn) ketab [doost dar-æm]
book friend have-1sg
I like books
• Heritage speakers have no problem with this rule and
never transfer the English rule.
• L2 learners are constantly challenged by this rule even at
higher proficiency levels.
• Verbal Agreement
Verbs agree in Person and Number with the subject.
Heritage speakers have no problem with the verbal
 L2 learners are also the same (they may forget the
appropriate verbal ending but the rule is easily acquired)
Exceptions to verbal agreement
Psychological verbs (also known as impersonal):
10) (mæn) (az un)
khosh-æm mi-a-d
from s/he/it
I like s/he/it
The verb does not agree with the subject. It agrees with the
psychological state (also: I m hungry, thirsty, sleepy, sad…)
 these constructions are easily performed by heritage speakers
 They are major problems for L2 learners (no English pattern
to follow)
 Heritage speakers only have access to the inventory of the
vocabulary and lexicon of the spoken form, which is much
more limited than the written form.
 Polinsky (2008) argues that heritage speakers have
“serious problems with lexical access and retrieval” and
that code switching is one of the strategies to deal with
this issue.
 Completely true for Persian. In fact even native speakers
who have lived abroad for a while do this frequently.
 Code switching happens frequently among native speakers
and heritage speakers.
A distinguishing factor between Persian and other languages
Almost 70-80% of Persian verbs are compounds (non-verbal
element + verbal element)
Certain light verbs such as “kærdæn/to do”, “shodæn/to
become”, “gereftæn/to take”, and “zædæn/to hit” are extremely
versatile and may take any foreign word as their non-verbal
11) log-in
Did you long in?
12) mæn hænuz-(h)amOK
I have not become OK yet/ I am not OK yet.
In (12) the word “OK” replaces the adjective “khoob” (good) and
is used very frequently by both native and heritage speakers.
Code switching is not only limited to compound verbs:
13) bayæd team-work dahst-e
must team-work had-participle be-imperative-1pl
we must have team-work
In (13) the verb takes the English word “team-work” as direct
 The way heritage Persian speakers carry themselves, their
discourse, gestures, facial and linguistic expressions, and even
the way they sit in class is more affected by their dominant
 In some instances, while heritage speaker might be behaving
completely politely, their mannerism might come across as rude
to a native speaker who has just arrived from Iran and is not
acquainted with the foreign culture.
 So, without intending to do so, heritage speaker of Persian
may have ignorant or rude mannerism in the eyes of native
Identity issues
(Socio-political factors)
 Due to current political situation between Iran and U.S.
Persian speakers exhibit two distinct patters:
a. They are either extremely mindful of showing that they have
Iranian origin (are Iranian) or
b. They try not to show their ethnicity as much as they can (for
instance tell people that their exotic look is due to having
Italian origins etc.)
 Heritage speakers of Persian usually over-estimate their
linguistic knowledge, i.e. they think they know more than they
 In a mixed class with both heritage and non-heritage students
(in my experience) heritage students start with a higher
proficiency than non-heritage students but end up with almost
the same scores at the end.
Partially because their written knowledge is not any better
than non-heritage learners.
 This issue further supports the need for separate classes for
heritage learners.
Persian as a heritage language is a new and emerging topic
that requires much more attention.
 Need for systematic research
 Need for instructional material
 Need for appropriate assessment tools
 Need to raise awareness in educational institutions to
invest (as heritage Persian classes are usually not cost
 Need to raise awareness for families to foster the
heritage language of their children

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