The Importance of Learning a Heritage Language

What drove you to choose the language you’re learning? Was it to succeed in the workplace or communicate better with your neighbors? A memorable vacation or a favorite TV show? Or were you inspired by your own heritage?

One term you’ll hear a lot in discussions about language learning is ‘heritage language.’ But what exactly does that mean? Are you a heritage language learner and don’t even know it? And why is it rewarding—and crucial—to learn a heritage language? Dive into the concept of ‘heritage language learning’ with us and we’ll explore all of these questions and more.

What does it mean?

There isn’t just one way to be a heritage language learner. If you’re expecting a short and sweet definition, you won’t get one. Maria Polinsky and Olga Kagan give these two definitions for the term:

“Narrow definition: those who have been exposed to a particular language in childhood but did not learn it to full capacity because another language became dominant. FUNCTIONAL PROFICIENCY
Broad definition: those who have been raised with a strong cultural connection to a particular language, usually through family interaction. CULTURAL AFFINITY.”

So, let’s break down what this means. Some ‘heritage language learners’ grew up learning the language but stopped using it as much as another language. And some ‘heritage language learners’ don’t speak the language but feel a cultural connection to that language. Do either of these sound like you?

Meet some heritage language learners!

Juan, an adult Spanish student with Fluent City, falls somewhere between the two types. He writes,

My family is from the Dominican Republic. I took Spanish all throughout high school but I never really "learned" it, especially how to speak it and communicate effectively. I did well in the courses but they didn't really help me much.

Another adult Spanish learner, Andrea, writes that she never learned much Spanish as a young person and later found that she'd forgotten what she'd learned during her travels in Spanish-speaking countries.

“Spanish is my mom’s first language, but I didn’t really grow up speaking it. I was kind of surprised at how unprepared I felt."

Adult Hebrew student Anna is raising a heritage language learner. Her husband speaks Hebrew to their son, and her husband's parents speak Hebrew as a first language. She is now learning the language to communicate with the family and make sure her son grows up with access to his heritage language. She says,

"I hope to be able to better communicate and connect with our friends and family, both here in NYC and in Israel."

Still processing the two definitions of 'heritage language learner?' Here are a few detailed profiles of what the two types of language learner might look like! These characters are composites based on real language learners, but they each demonstrate some common traits of heritage language learners.

Philip is a heritage language learner. At age 25, he’s taking private Mandarin lessons. Growing up in Maryland, his family spoke both Mandarin and English at home. His mother was born in China and spoke Mandarin as a first language, while his father spoke Mandarin and English equally. Once Philip started attending school, his teachers and classmates spoke only English and he rarely practiced his Mandarin skills anymore.

Although he understands Mandarin fairly well and can speak it a little, he considers English his first language and isn’t fluent in Mandarin, nor is he comfortable reading and writing in it. He once visited his extended family in China and could easily order food and hold basic conversations, but he knows he doesn’t sound like a native speaker. As an adult, he’s come to value his bilingual upbringing and has decided to work on becoming a fluent Mandarin speaker to increase his opportunities in the business world.

Hannah can also be considered a heritage language learner. At age 20, she’s taking beginner Mandarin classes in college. She grew up in Northern California in a family that spoke only English at home. Her paternal grandparents emigrated from China and live in Southern California. They speak mostly Mandarin and during family visits, her father needs to help translate conversations. Hannah never learned any Mandarin, but the family celebrates traditional Chinese holidays and loves cooking Chinese dishes together.

Mandarin classes weren’t offered at Hannah’s school, so she took Spanish instead. She really enjoyed Spanish class and is now excited to learn Mandarin in college. She chose the language because she felt a strong connection to her Chinese heritage and felt learning the language would help her feel more connected to her culture and extended family. She hopes to study abroad in China next year.

Philip and Hannah may both be fictional, but their situations aren’t unusual. For example, studies show that most Asian-American students don’t get an opportunity to study their heritage language until college, and most enter these classes without much proficiency unless their families took great care to teach them the language at home. Let’s delve into why that’s the case.

Does learning one language mean unlearning another?

For much of the 20th century, the children of immigrants were encouraged to learn English and assimilate into American society as much as possible. Parents who spoke any language other than English as their first language felt pressure to raise English-speaking kids, and teachers thought speaking more than one language would hold kids back. Experts now know that’s not true—in fact, there are many benefits to being bilingual.

But even kids who grow up speaking two languages at home often grow into adults who only speak English fluently. Cheryl Lee writes:

“The language learning process of children from immigrant families in the United States includes not only the acquisition of English but also the loss or maintenance of a heritage language; the outcome of this process is influenced by the interplay of social factors often beyond the control of the child or caretakers involved.”

That means learning English often means losing another language. Maintaining a heritage language doesn’t happen automatically. It requires direct instruction, access to the language in schools, lots of time and effort and—very importantly— social support. In short, if you’re surrounded by English speakers, all of your classes are taught in English, and everything seems to place English above your heritage language, it’s no surprise if you prioritize learning English over maintaining a heritage language.

The top ten most common heritage languages currently being learned in the USA are Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Armenian, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu, and Japanese. Few of these languages are available to learn in most public schools, and even fewer schools offer bilingual programs for speakers of these languages. It’s not a surprise that kids with a cultural affinity to these languages may not become fluent speakers.

It is common knowledge that learning a new language is easier as a child, but many heritage language learners don’t get an opportunity to formally study the language until high school, college, or later in adulthood. This doesn’t mean that they’ll never become fluent, however. There are so many benefits to learning a heritage language.

Why should I learn a heritage language?

Many heritage language users report feeling stronger senses of identity, belonging, and even self-esteem. Feeling connected to family and heritage may make students feel more secure in who they are and their place in the world. On a more practical level, learning a heritage language can make it easier for learners to communicate with family, travel, enjoy popular culture (like movies and music in the heritage language), and pass down traditions like recipes and songs that may otherwise be lost to time. Scott Berghegger writes,

“Reconnecting with and understanding ancestry and community is the driving force behind heritage language learning.”

Heritage language learners also have an advantage over language learners who are "starting from scratch." When you’re already steeped in language and culture, you’ll learn much faster than the other students. Even students like Hannah, who does not speak any Mandarin, may find it easier to pick up the pronunciation and tones required, and she may even realize she recognizes more words than she thought, thanks to her exposure to fluent Mandarin speakers. Students who feel a personal investment in or connection to learning a language often engage more in the language learning process, too.

What are you waiting for?

Have you started a language learning journey? If you’ve always wanted to learn or re-learn a heritage language, it's never too late. Fluent City offers virtual language lessons in 11 languages, including Spanish, French, Mandarin, German, Italian, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, and English.

NeuLingo is a perfect solution for Mandarin heritage language speakers between the ages of 5-16. While it may be difficult for children to access Mandarin classes in schools or their communities, these virtual 1:1 lessons can help prevent language loss and or help total beginners pick up early Mandarin skills. We can’t wait to meet you!