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Heritage Language Learners in the U.S.

Who are Heritage Language Learners (HLLs)? Any immigrants or children of immigrants who have been exposed to a particular language, other than English, but who are now more linguistically fluent in the societal dominant language. According to Valdés (2005), “American heritage language students include children of native American background, foreign born immigrants who came to the United States at a young age, the native-born children of foreign born immigrants, and occasionally the native born children of native-born individuals of immigrant background American.” (p.413). To some extent, the term heritage speaker is considered new but there are already categories and many subcategories to describe the name. However, there is an emergency on defining the term in order to develop research and theories of heritage language learning; moreover by defining it, we can differentiate heritage learners (HL) from first and second language learners.


Benmamoun, Montrul, and Polinsky (2011) analyze that heritage speakers diverge from native speakers in phonology, lexical knowledge, morphology, syntax, case marking, and code switching. The authors also emphasize three factors that help shape heritage grammars: incomplete acquisition, attrition, and transfer from the dominant language. HLLs proficiency range varies. For instance, some HLLs speak their HL since birth possessing informal language register of a native speaker but lacking the academic achievement in their HL while other HLLs somehow interrupt acquiring their HL when they are growing up. Consequently, one of the languages, the societal dominant language, develops to be the primary language while the other language grows weaker. According to Benmamoun, Montrul, and Polinsky (2010), “this finding is at odds with the linguistic assumption that first languages are stable in adult speakers” (p.1). In part, HLLs fail to develop their heritage language due to societal push toward English, which makes it harder to maintain the HL while growing up. Some HL speakers may not have the opportunity to become literate in their HL and depending on the circumstances; they might not receive formal education in the HL, forcing them to depend on their home or community to keep it.


Some programs for HLLs are community-based institutions, such as churches and consulates. Such programs generally have teachers, parents and retired volunteers supporting heritage language learning. Many HL programs at the Pre-K-12, college, university, and adult education program levels are still in the process of being developed. As researchers attest, HL training and professional development programs are problematic. Besides, due to the lack of qualified professionals to teach in such programs, recruiting is also a challenge. Professional actions and research focusing on the teaching of HL have increased recently. However, there is still a deficit in reports, communication, infrastructure and support for such programs. If we want to help heritage speakers maintain their language, we need to be aware of their necessities. Developing research and theories for heritage language learning will allow for the development of language policies, language programs offering, and most importantly, enhancement of the value of societal bilingualism and maintenance of students’ identity and culture.


English is Not Enough: Valuing the Legacy of Heritage Languages


Benmamoun, A., S. Montrul, A. Albirini, and E. Saddah. (2011). White paper: Prolegomena to heritage linguistics. Paper presented at the Second Summer Heritage Languages Institute, Harvard University, June 22-27, 2008.


Carreira, M., & Kagan, O. (2011). The results of the national heritage language survey: implications for teaching, curriculum design, and professional development. Foreign Language Annals, 44(1), 40-64.


Cho, G., Shin, F., & Krashen, S. (2004). What do we know about heritage languages? What do we need to know about them? Multicultural Education, 11(4), 23-26.


Choi, J., & Yi, Y. (2012). The use and role of pop culture in heritage language learning: A study of advanced learners of Korean. Foreign Language Annals, 45(1), 110-129.


Cho, G. and S. Krashen. (2000). The role of voluntary factors in heritage language development: How speakers can develop the heritage language on their own. ITL: Review of applied linguistics, 127-140.


Krashen, S. D., Tse, L., & McQuillan, J. (1998). Heritage language development. Culver City, Calif: Language Education Associates.


Polinsky, M., & Kagan, O. ( 2007). Heritage languages: In the ‘Wild’ and in the classroom. Language and Linguistics Compass, 1(5), 368-395.


Reyhner, J. E., & Northern Arizona Univ., Flagstaff. Center for Excellence in Education. (1997). Teaching Indigenous Languages. Selected Papers from the Annual Symposium on Stabilizing Indigenous Languages (4th, Flagstaff, Arizona, May 1-3, 1997). Northern Arizona Univ.


Schwarzer, D., & Petrón, M. (2005). Heritage language instruction at the college level: Reality and possibilities. Foreign Language Annals, 38(4) 568-578.


Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education - or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ.: Erlbaum.


Valdés, G. (2000a). Introduction. In Spanish for native speakers. AATSP professional development series handbook for teachers K-16, Volume 1 (pp. 1-20). New York: Harcourt College.


Valdés, G. (2000b). Teaching heritage languages: An introduction for Slavic- language-teaching professionals. In O. Kagan & B. Rifkin (Eds.), Learning and teaching of Slavic languages and cultures: Toward the 21st century, (pp. 375-403). Bloomington, IN: Slavica.


Valdés, G. (2005). Bilingualism, heritage language learners, and SLA research: Opportunities lost or seized?. The Modern Language Journal 89 (3), 410-426.


Webb, J. B., & Miller, B. L. (2000). Teaching heritage language learners: Voices from the classroom. Yonkers, N.Y: ACTFL.



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


Lopes, J. (2013). U.S. Language Heritage Learners. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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