Heritage language learners: Like second language learners, only different (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

Ancestral languages, international languages, minority languages, non-official languages, immigrant minority languages, community languages, home languages, languages of origin… these are just a few of the terms that have been used to describe languages spoken by minority ethnolinguistic groups.

In Canada, where bilingualism and multilingualism are largely viewed favorably, these languages are often referred to as heritage languages. The term, first introduced in the 1960s, was intended to highlight the importance of ethnic minorities’ linguistic and cultural heritage (Cummins, 2014). Researchers, however, do not all agree on an exact definition. For some, heritage language includes minority languages, which in the Canadian context means languages other than English and French, and also Indigenous languages. For other researchers the latter is excluded (Valdés 2001).

Generally speaking, heritage language speakers and learners are found to have a stronger aural competence compared to their other modalities (Valdés 2001). They can understand the language almost perfectly, particularly if a family member uses it, but often struggle with oral fluency and literacy. Heritage speakers are, therefore, individuals who can understand and, to some extent or another, use the heritage language. Heritage language learners, on the other hand, are individuals who not only understand the heritage language, but also choose to maintain a connection to it through formal instruction (Carreira, 2004).

In most cases, the heritage language is the first language that the speaker is exposed to from a young age. It is often the first language of the speaker’s parents or grandparents, and the one that they are likely to use at home. Simultaneously, the heritage language speaker is also being introduced to the dominant language of their environment from a very young age and is equally encouraged to use it in various settings, so as to ensure fluency – a competency believed to be essential for the speaker’s integration in society. The person therefore uses the dominant language at school, at the park, even at home, and gradually changes his or her language dominance, sometimes to the point of forgetting the home language. By these standards, a heritage language cannot necessarily be deemed a person’s first language; however, it is not necessarily a person’s second language either. Heritage language speakers and learners have a personal connection to their heritage language. Although they may find it easier to express themselves in the dominant language, the heritage language is the language of their family and culture – an inextricable part of their identity.



Carreira, M. (2004). Seeking Explanatory Adequacy: A Dual Approach to Understanding the Term Heritage Language Learner. Heritage Language Journal, 2 (1), 1-25.

Carreira, M. (2016). Supporting HL learners through Macrobased Teaching. In M. Fairclough & S. M. Beaudrie (Eds.), Innovative Strategies for Heritage Language Teaching: A Practical Guide for the Classroom. (pp. 123-142). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Cummins, J. (2014). Mainstreaming Plurilingualism: Restructuring Heritage language provision in Schools. In P. P. Trifonas & T. Aravossitas (Eds.), Rethinking Heritage Language Education, (pp.1-19). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Valdés, G. (2001). Heritage Language Students: Profiles and Possibilities. In J. Peyton, J. Ranard & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage Languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 37-80). McHenry, IL: The Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

One thought on “Heritage language learners: Like second language learners, only different (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

  1. A beautifully precise and concise encapsulation of the problems inherent in defining “Heritage Languages”—AND a useful, usable definition. Thanks!

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