Reflections on Heritage Language teaching and learning (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

For the past three years, I have been working as a Greek heritage language teacher in a Greek secondary school in Montreal. The first two years, I was assigned grade 10 classes, whereas this year, I was assigned a grade 7 class. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with students of different ages. Even though I have taken several courses on children’s developmental psychology, pedagogics, and school psychology, I truly believe that being given the opportunity to work with students of different ages has been by far the most informative experience I have had.

I still consider myself to be a novice teacher, as my teaching experience is relatively short; only five years. However, I have been fortunate, because I have worked in very different contexts and with very different groups of students, and this has motivated me to constantly reflect on my teaching strategies, trying to find new ways to win over my students. This drive has been even stronger in the last three years, ever since I started working as a heritage language teacher. But, before I go on, I should probably explain what heritage languages are.

While there is no consensus on an exact definition of heritage languages, the term is generally used to refer to minority languages, which in the Canadian context means languages other than English and French. Some researchers consider Indigenous languages as heritage languages, but not everyone agrees with that (Valdés 2001). Despite financial difficulties, many minority communities strive to have heritage language programs, as they are particularly concerned about the maintenance of their languages, especially after the third generation. The teaching of heritage languages usually takes place in private schools or in community out-of-school programs (afternoon or Saturday programs) (Cummins, 1992; Cummins, 2005).

The school where I work is a Greek Saturday school. All the students in this school have familial ties to Greek, but their backgrounds can sometimes differ. Most students are third-or-fourth generation Greeks, some of them are second-generation, and a handful of them are first generation. The students’ familiarity with the Greek language ranges too and seems to be dependent on factors such as their use of the Greek language at home, their relation with first-generation Greeks – who, for most students are the παππού (grandfather) and γιαγιά (grandmother) – and their participation in Greek customs and traditions (i.e. see my previous post on the Greek parade in Montreal and other places). Most of them have a strong aural competence, that is, they can understand the language almost perfectly, even though they usually find it more difficult to produce speech in Greek.  

Interestingly, all students, irrespective of their language abilities in Greek, seem to have a very strong rapport with the Greek culture. Most of our students take classes on Greek dances, are interested in Greek history, are familiar with Greek customs, listen to Greek music, go to Greek churches, and generally follow Greek traditions and holidays. In my eyes, their deeply rooted love for Greece is very moving. However, learning Greek is by no means an easy task, and it can be overwhelming for our students who learn at least two more other languages in their day schools. It became clear early on that in order to spark my students’ interest and keep them engaged I had to combine aspects of the Greek culture with the teaching of the Greek language.

For example, last year, I planned a lesson around a Greek custom called μαρτάκι [martaki]. The μαρτάκι is a bracelet made of red and white thread. As its name suggests, Greeks make and wear their μαρτάκι in March, and keep it on for the entire month. In the past, the bracelet was believed to help protect the person wearing it from the bright sun of spring. Now, it symbolizes the passing from winter to spring. We started the lesson by making our own bracelets. I had bought some red and white threads and showed students how to create their μαρτάκι. The students seemed to be excited; all of them participated in the activity, and most of them made extra bracelets for their friends and family members (mainly for their mothers). I made sure not to rush them through the activity; I gave them sufficient time to work on their bracelets, as I believed—and still do—that this first part of the lesson was just as important as the next one.

When all students had finished making their bracelets, I introduced them to a news article describing the custom and its origins. First, we read the article aloud, underlined and explained some unknown words. Next, I asked students to complete some comprehension activities based on the text, and finally, I asked them to write a small paragraph describing the custom. The students’ motivation and engagement were obviously affected positively; the use of authentic material, the focus on a real tradition, and the participation in an interactive and fun activity appeared to excite them. At the same time, I felt that the students’ reading comprehension was facilitated by introducing this hands-on activity at the beginning of the lesson. All students managed to make sense of the article, which, like most authentic materials, included some words and expressions that were challenging and perhaps slightly advanced for them.

Research suggests that heritage language learners benefit more from macrobased approaches, that is, from approaches that start from the learners’ experiences and then move on to specifics of the language (i.e. vocabulary, grammar etc.) (Carreira, 2016). Indeed, lessons like the one described here confirm this hypothesis. I truly believe that this was one of the most engaging and informative lessons for my students.


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. (1992). Heritage language teaching in Canadian schools. In C. Baker & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), An introductory reader to the writings of Jim Cummins (pp. 252-257). Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognizing heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), 585-592.

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.

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