By definition, a heritage language is the original language learned by speakers when they were still children. The learning was not fully developed because they moved to another country where they grow up with the main language spoken in their new home.
Eventually they become competent in the acquired language and may have forgotten their heritage language because they barely speak it at home. In some cultures where people are determined by their ethnic classification through their mother tongue, a heritage language would be classified as their native language.
It can pertain to the language of a community or a family where the person does not understand or speak the language but is culturally identified with the particular language.
The United States is linguistically diverse. With the high number of people motivated to acquire a second or third language, just how important are heritage languages in the context of foreign language learning?
Linguistics and foreign language education definitions
The definition of heritage language is both divergent and specific in relation to linguistics and foreign language education.
Using foreign language education’s perspective, heritage language means the functional proficiency in the language as well as the upbringing of the student. The student in this case is raised in an environment where the heritage language is spoken, which makes the student acquire some proficiency in the native tongue. Unless the student has some ability to speak the native tongue, it cannot be considered that he or she is a heritage speaker if the only connection to the language is cultural.
If the perspective is based on linguists, heritage language means that there is temporary acquisition and sometimes language dominance in the student. In this case, the heritage speaker’s first language is the heritage language because it is spoken in the home. It was a natural acquisition while the majority language becomes the second language learned in school and from exposure through various media.
Decrease in exposure to heritage language
As the speaker grows up the exposure to the heritage language decreases. The student is more exposed to the majority language, which will become the student’s dominant language.
Age also has an effect on the retention of a heritage language. If the speaker is still very young when he or she arrived in the United States, the more it is possible for them to use English than their heritage language.
Loss of heritage language
Typically, the use of heritage languages is completely lost in two or three generations as the original speakers are gradually lost. Younger immigrants display deficits in speaking heritage languages compared to those who are monolinguals. Often they fail to develop their ability to write, speak and read in the heritage language.
One advantage a heritage learner has over other learners is the fact that the student has a head start over those who have to learn the language from the beginning. The heritage learner is ahead of the others in speaking skills, pronunciation and listening comprehension.
Common heritage languages
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Heritage Language Resource Center has branches in several higher institutions of learning across the country. According to the survey of students learning heritage languages, 22 heritage languages are being studied right now. The most common, according to the number of learners, are Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog (Filipino), Armenian, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu and Japanese. These popular languages are almost the same the list of foreign languages commonly spoken in the United States.
Promotion of heritage languages
The language development for speakers of heritage languages in the United States is supported by the Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages. Organizations and individuals pool in their resources to promote the progression of heritage languages. They aim to educate citizens who’ll be able to professionally function in various languages including English.
On the other hand, the National Heritage Language Resource Center provides workshops for heritage language teachers. It conducts various researches on the learning and teaching of heritage languages. Moreover, the center also creates learning materials specific to each heritage language for its learners.
Early bilingual speakers
Early bilinguals spoke heritage languages either sequentially or simultaneously. But their home or native language becomes very restricted because the input decreases as they assimilate the more dominant language. Therefore it is possible for them to understand their first language and speak it to a certain degree. However, their ability to speak the dominant language, English in this case, becomes easier.
Studying heritage languages is a new field in the realm of linguistics. It takes up research on the person’s first language and the acquisition of the language, language attrition and bilingualism as heritage speakers are a part of the bilingual category.
Special type of bilinguals
The many characteristics of heritage language speakers make them quite special. They have been exposed to their first language with their family. They either acquired their second language, which is a majority language in their community while they were young through contact with people outside of their immediate family or when they started school.
They are special bilinguals because they are fluent in the dominant or second language and are very comfortable using it in different settings because they were educated in that language.
The way they use their heritage language varies, though. Some have lost their fluency in their native tongue. Others continue to use the first language with their family at home, although they are not formally trained in the language as they only pick up what their family members are saying. They do not have the right literacy skills and many struggle to speak their first language outside of their family circle. In some instances the level of literacy in the heritage language depends on how reluctant or willing the speaker is in learning the native language.
The heritage language is their first language thus the bilingual typically does not have or at least just a touch of accent when speaking the language. Due to this, many people expect the heritage speaker to be fluent in their first language. Not only that, they also expect that the speaker also knows the culture of the country where the language came from.
One disadvantage faced by heritage languages is the decrease in usage. As the former speakers start school, they become more fluent in the acquired language. With this, the knowledge of their first language begins to fade. Even if they learn to write and read their heritage language, they are unable to reach the level that is at par with the dominant language.
The use of the heritage language becomes limited as well. Maybe some friends, relatives and people within the home use it, but the bilinguals, which are often the younger generation, may not have a wide vocabulary and would only be able to understand, speak or write basic words, phrases and sentences but would not be able to translate more specialized and complex words.
Unless their family members take the time to explain to them the culture of their native country, many of the heritage language speakers may not be culturally aware of their first culture.
Better head start
Although heritage language speakers may be more fluent in their second language they do have an advantage over same language learners who are starting from scratch. They already have a background on their first language as well as its culture and with the right environment they can be more competent in their native language.
What the Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages aims for is the promotion of heritage languages and encourage more heritage language learners to participate. They see this as harnessing the innate potential of these speakers to become ambassadors between their own cultural and linguistic groups, the entire nation and eventually, through other nations.
It is important for children and grandchildren of immigrants to learn their heritage languages as it connects them culturally and linguistically to their forebears. It can help them professionally as well, because the global economic community needs more fluent speakers of various languages. Being able to fluently speak a language other than English opens more doors to jobs and other opportunities.
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By Hine, Lewis Wickes; National Child Labor Committee Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons