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Heritage Language Learning: Definition & Example

Instructor: Kristen Goode

Kristen has been an educator for 25+ years - as a classroom teacher, a school administrator, and a university instructor. She holds a doctorate in Education Leadership.

What is heritage language and who needs to learn it? In this lesson, we will define heritage language and examine examples of heritage language learning.

The Language of Ancestors

Sarah is an English speaking fourth grade student. Sarah has recently learned that she is 1/16th Navajo and has developed an interest in learning about her native heritage. She would also like to learn some of the Navajo language. Sarah is interested in learning her heritage language.

Heritage Language
Heritage Language

What is Heritage Language?

A heritage language is a language learned other than (or in addition to) a person's primary language. A heritage language is often learned by choice, out of interest in an ancestral culture or in another society. In some cases, a heritage language is learned in the home from family members.

Looking at Sarah, her first and dominant language is English because she was brought up in a home where English was the primary language spoken. However, because of her interest in learning the Navajo language, Sarah desires to learn a heritage language - the language of her ancestors.

Heritage Language Vs. Second Language

Though a heritage language is often considered to be a second language, there is a difference between a heritage language learner and a second language learner. A heritage language is often learned by choice out of interest in that language or culture, or it is taught in the home by someone's family. A heritage language is not necessary to a person's ability to function within his or her home environment or the culture in which he/she lives, and is not the dominant language of a nation or region.

Second language learners are those who pick up a second language out of necessity. An example would be an immigrant from Mexico coming to America who learns to speak English in order to be able to integrate and function within the American culture.

There are many different languages
Hello in different languages

Heritage Language Vs. Native Language

There is also a difference between a heritage language and a native language. Let's look back at our example about the immigrant from Mexico. This immigrant will likely learn English as a second language as a means of survival in his new country. Spanish, however, will always be his native language, or his first language. While his ability to communicate in English as his second language will allow him to live comfortably in his surroundings, Spanish will remain his native and preferred language.

In most cases, heritage language is different because it is usually not the first language learned. To that end, a native language is a first (and often primary) language while heritage language refers to the language of one's ancestry or culture and is second to another primary language.

There are scenarios in which heritage language is also native language. In these cases, children are raised listening and speaking in their native tongue. When these children enter school, however, they become fluent in English as a second language and do not use their native language as frequently, or as their primary language. In these cases, a person's heritage language and native language may be the same thing. Because these children have learned and primarily use English instead of their native language, their native language also becomes their heritage language.

Put simply, heritage language is often not a person's first or primary language. If the native language remains dominant, it is not considered heritage language. If the native language is abandoned and English becomes the dominant language, the native language will become heritage language.

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