By Michael Johns and Nora Vosburg
The United States is rich with different languages and cultures. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated a total of 9 million children out of 60 million U.S. Americans who speak a different language than English at home . These speakers are called heritage speakers. In this article, we provide short answers to some common questions about heritage speakers.
1. What is a heritage language?
A heritage language (HL) is one which is spoken at home, usually in family or other close-knit contexts, and which differs from the dominant language of the broader (often national) community. Heritage speakers represent a large portion of the U.S. population, from a Spanish-speaking child in Miami, raised speaking Spanish at home and English at school, to an elderly German speaker in rural Kansas who rarely speaks his first language, and many more. This broad definition of heritage speakers reflects the diversity of people who live with more than one language.
2. Do heritage speakers need to abandon their language to learn English well?
The simple answer is no. Learning a HL in the home is accompanied with the development of other skills, such as classifying objects (e.g. that apples and bananas are fruits, and that one apple may be green and big, and another red and small), and learning to organize events (e.g. that you have to put water into the tub before taking a bath). Many parents fear that using the HL in the home will lead to delays and deficits in learning, but research has consistently shown that there is no such disadvantage in typical children’s development . The skills acquired when learning the first language can be transferred when learning the second, and using two languages regularly may even be advantageous both academically and cognitively .
3. How is foreign language education different from heritage language education?
When students learn a foreign language, they often start from scratch: They have no prior knowledge of the language, nor any familial or cultural connection to it. They must learn to speak, read, write, and understand it. However, heritage speakers often come into the classroom already speaking the language, and may or may not be able to read and write in it. Likewise, they may know a dialect of the HL that differs from the one typically taught in foreign language classrooms. HL students often come to class with variable knowledge in their HL, and they can be encouraged to draw on personal and cultural experiences to build vocabulary, literacy, and writing skills .
4. What heritage language resources are available outside the classroom?
Perhaps one of the most important goals of HL programs is to foster lifelong bilingualism. Kagan (2005) emphasizes the importance of the triad of family, community, and formal education to maintain a HL . Community groups are therefore especially important for heritage language maintenance. Examples of such groups are the Happy Valley Chinese School here in State College (http://happyvalleychineseschool.org/), and the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in Harrisburg, PA, which serves a prominent resource for heritage speakers of Spanish in central PA (visit http://lhacc.org/).
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1U.S. Census from 2011: https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-22.pdf
2Rothman, J. (2009). Understanding the nature and outcomes of early bilingualism: Romance languages as heritage languages. International Journal of Bilingualism 13(2), 155-163.
3Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, p. 238-242.
4Blom, E., Küntay, A. C., Messer, M., Verhagen, J., & Leseman, P. (2014). The benefits of being bilingual: Working memory in bilingual Turkish–Dutch children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 128, 105-119.
5Kagan, O. (2005). In Support of a Proficiency-based Definition of Heritage Language Learners: The Case of Russian, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 8:2-3, 213-221, DOI: 10.1080/13670050508668608