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Heritage Language Define and Theory 

“Heritage language” is the term used to describe a language which is predominantly spoken by “nonsocietal” groups and linguistic minorities. Heritage languages include indigenous language that are often endangered, as well as world languages that are commonly spoken in many other regions.

Joshua Fishman defines heritage language as “those that are (a) are LOTEs (languages other than English), in Michael Clyne’s usage (1991, p.3) and that (b) have a particular family relevance to the learners.” (Fishman, 2001) He identifies three types of heritage languages in the United States.


1. Indigenous heritage language: languages of the peoples native to the America. Many of these languages disappeared and only some of them are spoken. Remained languages are also at risk of extinction and very few are being preserved by heritage language revitalization and maintenance.


2. Colonial heritage language: languages of the various European groups that were established before the United States of America came into being. Some of these languages are still spoken. These languages include Dutch, Swedish and Finnish, Welsh, French, Spanish and German.


3. Immigrant heritage language: languages spoken by immigrants who arrived in the United states after 1776. Some languages are both immigrant heritage language and colonial heritage language. For example, Spanish was first a colonial heritage language. Now, it is an immigrant heritage language in the United States.


There has been much debate about the role of language education policy and theory in teaching heritage language. For example, there were disagreements about pedagogies and goals of instruction in teaching Spanish. According to Valdes(1999), clear educational policy guiding the goals of language instruction for heritage Spanish-speaking students is missing. There needs to be a pedagogical theory about how to teach, and what to teach for the heritage language speakers.


Fishman, J. (2001). 300-plus years of heritage language education in the United States. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 81-89). Washington, DC & McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics & Delta Systems.

Kelleher, A. (2001). What is a heritage language program? Heritage briefs Center for Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from

Mrak, N.A. (2011). Heritage speakers and the Standard: Fighting linguistic hegemony. In Luis A. Ortiz-López (Ed.), Selected Proceedings of the13th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium.

Valdés, G. (2005). Bilingualism, heritage language learners, and SLA research: Opportunities lost or seized?. The Modern Language Journal89(3), 410-426.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Hyun, Jungwon. (2015). Heritage Languages Define and Theory. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 
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