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What is Heritage Language?

Individuals who speak multiple languages or live in multilingual households may have a “heritage language.” This term describes the language the individual speaks or hears at home, but it is not the dominant language spoken in the community.

In the United States, English is the de facto official language and is used in schools and businesses. If someone who grew up in America uses Spanish, Korean, Russian, or another language at home this may be considered their heritage language.

Keep reading to learn more about heritage languages and why they are so important to preserve.

Heritage Language vs Foreign Language

The term “foreign language” is often used to describe a non-dominant language. However, many linguists and activists have started using the term “heritage language” to describe this instead.

The words we use matter, and describing the language someone speaks as “foreign” may make that individual feel alienated. Linguist Ann Kelleher from the University of California in Davis wrote in a brief that “these languages are not ‘foreign’ to particular individuals or communities; instead, they are familiar in a variety of ways.”

Kelleher also states that the term “heritage language” should be used instead of “minority language” because “many negative social connotations accompany the term.” She added that this term is not always accurate and a language other than English may actually be the majority language in certain communities in the United States.

What is the Difference Between Heritage Language and Native Language?

While a heritage language may seem like the same thing as a native language, there is an important distinction.

Courtney Nygaard, a Spanish teacher for heritage Spanish-speaking students, explained on her website that native language is the primary language spoken in an individual’s home and the county where they live. For example, if a Spanish speaker recently moved to the United States from Mexico, that person’s native language is Spanish. Spanish is the language they speak at home, and they grew up using Spanish in their school and community.

A native language is often defined as the first language an individual learns or the dominant language in the country where an individual was born. Heritage languages may not be the first language an individual acquires, especially if they only hear this language from a family member that does not live in their home.

Consider a second example. A different individual grew up in the United States, but their grandparents are native Spanish speakers who live in Mexico. This individual may speak English as their native language if this was the language their parents used at home and it was the language they used at school. Spanish would be their heritage language, especially if they encountered it by interacting with their native Spanish-speaking grandparents.

How Can We Preserve our Heritage Language?

Some heritage speakers never fully developed the heritage language because they only use this language around certain members of their family. Since it is not their native language or the dominant language in the community, they may not fully acquire this language.

Regardless of their fluency, preserving a heritage language is important because it allows individuals to stay connected to their culture and their families.

Schools can help preserve heritage languages by offering bilingual education opportunities. In an American community with heritage language Spanish speakers, for example, the school can teach some classes in Spanish, so the students are exposed to their heritage language in both the home and their community.

Heritage languages reflect an individual’s unique history, tradition, and culture. If these languages are not preserved, they could be lost over time.

Curious to learn more? Browse the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for other fascinating language stories.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.

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