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Gender and number agreement in the oral production of Arabic Heritage speakers*


Heritage language acquisition has been characterized by various asymmetries, including the differential acquisition rates of various linguistic areas and the unbalanced acquisition of different categories within a single area. This paper examines Arabic heritage speakers’ knowledge of subject–verb agreement versus noun–adjective agreement with the aim of contrasting their distributions and exploring areas of resilience and vulnerability within Arabic heritage speech and their theoretical implications. Two oral-production experiments were carried out, one involving two picture-description tasks, and another requiring an elicited narrative. The results of the study show that subject–verb agreement morphology is more maintained than noun–adjective morphology. Moreover, the unmarked singular masculine default is more robust than the other categories in both domains and is often over-generalized to other marked categories. The results thus confirm the existence of these asymmetries. We propose that these asymmetries may not be explained by a single factor, but by a complex set of morphological, syntactic, semantic, and frequency-related factors.

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Address for correspondence: Abdulkafi Albirini, Utah State University, Department of Languages, Philosophy and Speech Communication, 0720 Old Main Logan, UT 84322,
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The research reported in this article was supported in part by a grant from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. We would like to thank the participants and the research assistants who helped with the study. We are grateful for the input we received from the participants at the 2011 Heritage Language Institute (UCLA, 2011) and for the opportunity given to us by Olga Kagan and Maria Polinsky to present our research on heritage speakers of Arabic at the institute. We would also like to thank the three reviewers from Bilingualism: Language and Cognition for their constructive feedback and suggestions as well as Dr. Carmen Silva-Corvalán for her valuable editorial work. All remaining errors are ours.

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