November 3, 2021 @ 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm

Variation in Heritage Learners’ Written Spanish: Subject Personal Pronouns and Discourse Connectedness

Robert Bayley and Cory L. Holland

University of California, Davis


Spanish pronominal subjects may be realized overtly or as null, e.g. yo/Ø. hablo ‘I speak.’ Variation in Spanish subject personal pronouns (SPPs) has been studied for many years and the factors that condition such variation are well known. Among the most widely examined influences is co-reference, i.e., whether the subject is co-referential with the subject of the preceding tensed verb. Studies have found that subjects that are co-referential with the preceding subject are more likely to be null than when there is continuity of reference (e.g. Bayley, Greer & Holland 2017; de Prada Pérez 2020; Flores-Ferrán 2007). However, other studies suggest that a binary distinction between co- and switch reference fails to capture the full complexity of this constraint (e.g. Bayley & Pease-Alvarez 1997; Geeslin and Gudmestad 2011; Otheguy, Zentella 2012). Those studies found that SPP variation was conditioned by a multi-stage variable of discourse connectedness. This study extends that work to essays elicited from Spanish heritage speakers. Multivariate analysis shows that a multi-factor variable of discourse connectedness provides a more fine-grained account than a binary model of switch reference. Results also indicate that heritage writers’ choices between null and overt SPPs are conditioned by a complex array of other constraints. Finally, results suggest that SPP variation in the writing of heritage language speakers is relatively unaffected by contact with English.



Cory Holland has a PhD in Linguistics from the University of California, Davis.  She is a research associate at UC Davis and a freelance data scientist working on AI language projects.  Her areas of interest include sociolinguistic variation, dialects of the western US, and teaching English to both humans and computers.

Robert Bayley is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Davis. He is a sociolinguist who has conducted research on variation in English, Spanish, ASL, Chinese, and Italian Sign Language as well as ethnographic research in Latinx communities in California and Texas. He was President of the American Dialect Society (ADS) and is a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America and the ADS.