Language Education Policy Studies
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Heritage Language Shift and Policy 

On the political level, heritage language can be a highly charged national debate over multiculturalism and cultural hegemony. (See also National Frameworks, Intercultural Competence). For both immigrant and Indigenous peoples and as part of the language education policy spectrum, heritage languages are similar to minority languages, yet distinct: heritage language implies post-language shift (not transmitted fully by a previous generation) that is learned as cultural or family heritage. A different set of questions emerges related to schooling and its role in reversing or maintaining these languages. Often schooling plays a role in the intergenerational transfer of language and subsequent loss, when the transfer is difficult to maintain or the choice is made to not maintain it. (See Language Shift, Multilingual Education.)


In some cases a struggle exists because in the sociocultural context, heritage language competency can also be highly charged and even divide communities by speakers and non-speakers, raising again the question of proficiency and how to define a heritage language. When the participants/speakers wish to know the languages and keep them alive intergenerationally- they must contend with dominant languages of the bigger domains, in particular language in education policies. At times an individual or group who feel the cultural and epistemic value of a language reclaim their heritage language.


At UNESCO’s level, cultural heritage does not even include language. As with other conceptual issues, some scholars claim that minorities and heritage language learners do not want their languages. However, much research has been done to the contrary, and “people’s own self-identification should be more important than outside researchers’ exocategorisations” (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2009). Clearly forcing students to learn a heritage language or policies that ‘force’ or require heritage language learning would not be effective. However, language rights as part of policymaking ideology would make it easier to make the choice by lessening restraints related to formal schooling, testing, employment; and providing resources. In the absence of language education policies that support multilingualism and would allow heritage languages to be transmitted easily, the heritage language learning and teaching strategies must rely on community involvement to provide sites such as language nests, weekend schools, or immersion camps. 


Bale, J. (2010). International Comparative Perspectives on Heritage Language Education Policy Research, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30: 42–65.


Blackledge, A., & A. Creese. 2008. Contesting ‘language’ as ‘heritage’: Negotiation of identities in late modernity. Applied Linguistics, 29(4): 533-554.


Brinton, D. M., Kagan, O., & Bauckus, S. (2008). Heritage language education: A new field emerging. New York: Routledge.


Lehmann, C. (2006). On the value of a language. European Review, 14: 151-166. 

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

Harrison, K.  M. (2015). Heritage Languages. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date).