Teaching Heritage Languages Research Paper Starter

Teaching Heritage Languages

Heritage languages (HLs) are languages other than English that are part of an individual's cultural or family background. In the U.S, speakers of many HLs are in high demand in business and government, yet a lack of support for maintaining HLs means that many of these languages have disappeared or are disappearing. To prevent this loss, programs for heritage language learners (HLLs) offer classes in language and culture. These programs are varied because they must meet the needs of diverse populations. This article discusses teaching heritage languages in the context of the communities that speak them.

Keywords Bidialectalism; Bilingualism; Bilingual Education; Code-switching; English-only Instruction; Heritage Language; Heritage Language Learners; Immersion Programs; Language Loss; Language maintenance; Prestige Variety


A heritage language is a language other than English that is part of an individual's cultural or family background. It may be the first language (L1) of an individual who has a more dominant second language (L2), or it may be an indigenous language that belongs to a particular cultural group (e.g., Native American languages).

Heritage languages hold a tenuous position in American culture. On the one hand, the need for individuals with advanced proficiency in a number of specific languages is on the rise. Globalization and conflict in the Middle East have increased the need for speakers of Arabic, Pashtu, Persian, Mandarin and other non-European languages. Federal money is being spent to increase training in these languages and to attract heritage language speakers to high need social, economic, geopolitical and diplomatic positions (Brecht & Ingold, 2002; Kinzie, 2007; Malone, Rifkin, Christian, & Johnson, 2005; Wright, 2007) In addition to the community benefits, research in cognitive science, psychology, education and linguistics, tout the positive effects of bilingualism on cognitive and linguistic development. Bilingual individuals not only have greater career opportunities, but they also appear to develop and maintain better cognitive controls (Bialystok, Craik, & Ryan, 2006).

On the other hand, political tensions surrounding the issue of immigration, along with a decades-old movement to replace bilingual education with English Only instruction, has meant that many heritage languages are being lost (Wright, 2007). It is believed that without intervention, heritage languages of immigrant families are likely to disappear within three generations (Brecht & Ingold, 2002). When the political climate lowers the status of a particular language or cultural group, members of the group are even less likely to maintain the language, increasing the speed at which language shift, or the movement toward a dominant language occurs (Wright, 2007). Other community variables also pose obstacles to language maintenance with the result that language resources continue to disappear. For indigenous languages, this loss can mean the extinction of cultural values and identity that may never be regained.

Heritage Language Programs

To stem the tide of disappearing language resources, communities and individuals frequently establish programs to teach heritage language speakers about their native language and culture. Students in these programs are called heritage language learners (HLLs). HLLs are individuals who have exposure to a native language and culture via family background but who are not fully proficient in the language. In the U.S., these students are often children of immigrants or refugees or they may be members of a Native American tribe. These students may choose to formally study their HL in order to maintain their ethnic/cultural background or to develop advanced language proficiency. Because of their previous HL exposure, HLLs have different linguistic and identity needs than students who study the same language as an L2 (Carreira, 2004). For instance, beginning level HLLs are likely to have extensive vocabularies compared to the L2 learner who starts with nothing.

In creating HLL programs, designers must be sensitive to the great diversity of HLL needs. The needs are varied because of differences in literacy, educational attainment and other community variables (Carreira, 2004). Many students begin HL classes with basic listening and speaking skills but little or no ability to read or write. This is frequently caused by the fact that as children, their parents or other relatives spoke to them in the native tongue, but did not provide training in reading or writing. As a result, students maintain native-like pronunciation and receptive skills, may have extensive vocabularies and understand cultural norms of language use, but they need help learning the written system. HLLs may also face confidence issues when they speak. Although they may have been surrounded by the heritage language, for a variety of reasons, HLLs may have not always used it (e.g., adolescents often rebel by refusing to use their HL with parents). These students need chances to use the language in a safe and supportive environment (Beaudrie & Ducar, 2005; Marcos, 1999).

Attitudes of Heritage Language Learners

HLLs also differ in their attitudes toward and motivation for learning an HL. Students who exhibit positive attitudes toward the HL and home culture tend to have greater motivation to learn the language and subsequent achievement/success. Reciprocally, greater success in achieving bilingualism tends to improve one's outlook on ethnic identity, increase academic achievement, lead to better social relations and overall, increase personal gains (Li, 2006). Students who do not perceive the HL as important to identity or who believe the L1 interferes with one's ability to learn a more powerful and prestigious L2, are likely to have less motivation to learn the HL.

A key factor that influences attitudes toward the HL is the status/prestige of the language in the community of language users. In communities that have many members using a HL, the language is typically deemed to be useful, and thus, has high status. The opposite is true when communities of language users are small (Carreira, 2004; Li, 2006). Thus, Spanish in a large city like Miami is likely to be perceived by members of the community as having a higher status than would Spanish in a rural community with only a handful of Spanish-speaking residents. Additionally, because language is closely intertwined with identity, when individuals closely identify with a particular ethnic group, they assign greater status to the language of the group and strive to adopt the group's speech norms (Giles & Byrne, 1982).

Language Maintenance

Families are an important social group who influence children's attitudes towards an HL. Positive parental attitudes tend to encourage language maintenance. For example, parents who use the HL at home, and emphasize the need for children to do the same, foster their children's positive perceptions of the language and culture. Children of these parents are likely to identify with the culture of the home language and be more open to using or studying the HL. Parents can also have a negative effect on language maintenance. If they become too authoritarian and demand that their children use the HL, they risk increasing the speed at which their children abandon the L1 for the culturally dominant language (Li, 2006). Other family members also play a role in shaping children's language attitudes. Grandparents, for instance, often serve as cultural and linguistic role models, providing children opportunities to hear and respond in the HL. As a case in point, Park (2006) found that when English dominant children lived with their Korean-speaking grandparents, the children learned both the Korean language and the social norms regarding politeness that were expected in a typical Korean family hierarchy.

Further Insights

Types of Programs

Given the diversity of HLLs and their needs, it may not be a surprise that there are many kinds of HL programs. The Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages has created an extensive collection of HL program profiles (Online collection, 2007). Programs can be run by organizations, private and community groups, public schools and institutes of higher learning. Instruction can be given completely in the HL (immersion programs), or a combination of the HL and English (partial immersion). Content-based programs use the HL to teach subject matter such as math, social studies and science. Community college or university programs may offer separate foreign language tracks for HLLs.

A popular HL program is the Saturday, or Weekend, School. Saturday schools offer classes in both language and culture. Often, parents and volunteers organize and operate the schools, but some have administrative boards and principals. The curriculum in a language school includes language and culture classes, and may also offer content courses or homework tutorial sessions. Saturday schools have been found to contribute positively to ethnic identity...

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