What Is A Heritage Language?

Plus, a few heritage language learning success stories.
Heritage language learning represented by a father teaching his son how to write in Chinese by holding the paintbrush with the child and guiding his hand.

A heritage language is a language that isn’t the “dominant” language of a region, but is still learned by children in their homes (thus, it’s their heritage). Heritage languages are minority languages, but “heritage language” refers to a more specific phenomenon. Any language can be a heritage language, depending on the surrounding social context. English, for example, is often a dominant language, but could technically be a heritage language if someone’s English-speaking parents moved from, say, the United Kingdom to Japan.

Because they’re defined by a broad range of social and cultural factors, heritage languages can be a lot of different things. Here, we’ll dive more into the definition, look at a specific case study of a heritage language and explore how some people are trying to preserve their languages. 

What’s The Difference Between A Heritage Language And A Native Language?

Heritage languages can be someone’s native language, but the two terms aren’t interchangeable. A native language is the language or languages a person learns when they’re very young. If someone does have a heritage language as their native language, it’s accompanied by a second native language, which is the dominant language of the culture. For example, someone may speak Chinese at home with their parents, but English at school and in public life.

Someone’s abilities in their heritage language can vary quite a bit, however. Some people may be fluent because they were exposed to it a lot when they were child, while others may speak it but not read it, and still others may struggle with speaking it at all. Some people even lump non-speakers into the heritage language category, as long as the parents of these non-speakers do speak the language, while others exclude this group.

While we’ve mostly mentioned immigrant languages so far, heritage languages can also refer to indigenous languages that have been replaced by a different dominant language. In Brazil, for example, Portuguese may be dominant but there are many indigenous languages still around. The concept of a heritage language ignores where a language may come from and focuses entirely on who speaks it today.

Case Study: Spanish In The United States

The United States has over 56 million Spanish speakers, and a large portion of those are heritage learners of the language. Spanish started in the Americas as a colonial language, and it remains the dominant language in many countries, but in the United States it’s in the minority.

The Spanish language is certainly thriving in the United States, but it’s worth noting that the longer a Spanish-speaking family lives here, the less likely they are to pass down the language. A Pew Research study found that between first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants, the percentage of people who report speaking Spanish “well” drops from 91 to 82. While that might seem small, it gets much starker after that, with third- and fourth-generation immigrants dropping to 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons why heritage languages — and Spanish in particular — tends to drop off from generation to generation. The first one is that the heritage language is less important to getting around in society. When a person needs the majority language to go to school, get a job and interact with most people around them, it’s not surprising that the heritage language might seem less important. Another reason is some parents encourage their children to not use their heritage language. For example, the Spanish language in the United States has historically been marginalized. Parents may want their children to only learn English so they can assimilate to the larger culture. It’s unfortunate but true that speaking another language is still a cause for discrimination today. 

How Do People Preserve Heritage Languages?

Heritage languages may have a hard time lasting from generation to generation, but it’s not only a story of decay. There are countless people in the world who go out of their way to learn their heritage languages — some learn the heritage language later in life — and help others to do the same. Here are a few examples of the ways people are embracing heritage languages and keeping them alive.

  • Bilingual parenting. Some parents go out of their way to try to expose their children to a second language. This can be difficult, but our Babbel Live teacher Malcolm has compiled tips based on his own bilingual upbringing.
  • College courses. While it’s hardly surprising for colleges to provide language classes, some go further and have programs meant specifically for people who are heritage learners. These courses build on what students already know, with the goal of making a bilingual community.
  • Media exposure. As mentioned, one of the reasons that people struggle with their heritage languages is they’re only encountering it at home. By creating more media in the heritage language, though, people can have an easier time. A Hawaiian radio show from the 1970s, for example, helped spark a revival of the Hawaiian language.
  • Online communities. The internet has created countless opportunities for people to practice their languages with other people. No longer do you have to be in the same area or even country as native speakers of the language. You can just go on Reddit or a number of other online forums to find resources in any number of languages.

If you’ve ever thought about reconnecting with a heritage language, it’s never too late to get started. There’s no time like the present.

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