What is a heritage language and why is it important?

Speakers of the heritage language have an emotional connection to the language because it’s part of their identity roots
Thalita Lima
10 min
Table of Contents

A person can learn a language at any age. But what motivates someone to want to learn a language? One of the biggest motivations certainly is the curiosity about the culture and history it carries from the region where it's native. A language is an opportunity to travel through time and connect with other places and knowledge.

The heritage language is related to a person's cultural and identity roots. Represents a language which isn’t official or dominant in the country where a person lives, but it’s spoken by their groups and communities due to familiar or cultural aspects

Some people may be able to be fluent in the heritage language; others may only speak the basics and some may not understand but are part of a community where the language is spoken and are familiar with the language sounds and culture.

It's the classic case of children with immigrant or refugee parents, who speak one language at home while learning the official country language at school. Or indigenous people around the Americas, that struggle to keep their native languages  alive while having to learn the language of the colonizer.

Heritage language is important to diaspora and immigration processes

For descendants of the diaspora (dispersion of a people due to political or ethnic persecution), the heritage language is an important link to their origins. It's a symbolic asset and a right to be respected.

Especially in countries that have had their territories destroyed by wars, and where natives were forced to seek refuge in another country, maintaining the heritage language has the political strength to keep the language alive for future generations.

The heritage language is also an important aspect because its teaching is a way to increase the involvement of a specific country and culture on a global level.

Who speaks heritage languages?

The speakers of a heritage language are mostly descendants of immigrants living in a country where the heritage language is not the official or dominant language. Other terms for the heritage language include "minority language," "ethnic language," "community language" and "home language".

Learning this heritage language can take place within the family environment or through community schools or bilingual programs. It's common for immigrant descendants to develop stronger oral skills in the language compared to writing, mainly because they practice conversation at home.

Parents make an effort to maintain their language within the family environment. However, this sense of belonging isn't something that can be imposed. For immigrant children, it's a process of sparking interest in a culture that initially seems to belong more to their parents than to them.

Speakers of the heritage language have an emotional connection to it. It's neither their mother tongue nor a foreign language. The learning process is more about a sense of cultural belonging rather than purely linguistic acquisition.

For those attempting to learn a heritage language from scratch, there are pressures from both sides. Some parents and relatives encourage learning the language, while others discourage it out of fear that their descendants might face prejudice or struggle to adapt socially in the country where they live.

Three types of heritage languages in the United States 

Although historical processes of diaspora and immigration are the cause for most current heritage languages, there are other contexts where this term also applies.

In the United States, American linguist Joshua Fishman suggests that there are three types of heritage languages:

> Immigrant heritage languages: spoken by immigrants arriving in the United States after it became an independent country. It may overlap with colonial heritage languages; for instance, Spanish, which was a colonial heritage language, and it is now an immigrant heritage language with a huge number of speakers in the USA. 

> Indigenous heritage languages: languages of the peoples native to the Americas. Many of these languages are now extinct, some are spoken by a very few elders and are at risk of being lost, and a very few are being maintained within communities of speakers through strong educational efforts. 

> Colonial heritage languages: languages of the various European groups that first colonized what is now the United States and are still spoken here. These include such languages as Dutch, German, Finnish, French, Spanish, and Swedish. 

Community Schools 

In many countries, there are community schools that teach the heritage language to children of immigrants and refugees.

Teaching the heritage language extends far beyond technical language learning. It involves immersion in the cultural heritage of that language: films, music, books. It's a way of appreciating the culture and knowledge produced in that language.

An example to illustrate: portuguese as heritage language

The initiative for teaching the heritage language usually stems from parents concerned about passing down their cultural legacy to their children, as stated in an article by Edleise Mendes, a professor, researcher and former president of the International Society of Portuguese as a Foreign Language (SIPLE), for the Platô Magazine.

This movement within civil society has driven government initiatives. Presently, there's a focus on training teachers specialized in teaching Portuguese as a heritage language and developing teaching materials.

An example is the Continuing Education Project for Teachers of Portuguese as a Heritage Language, which offered its initial courses in 2011 in the United States, a country that hosts one of the largest concentrations of Brazilians. According to the article's author, teachers should act as cultural mediators, helping students establish a sense of belonging and connect with experiences within the heritage language.

The heritage language mirrors the growing multilingualism due to migration flows and historical transformations. It demonstrates how language is dynamic and ever-evolving.

For speakers, the heritage language brings positive additions. It's a skill and a distinguishing factor because, in addition to broadening communication possibilities, it also enhances a sense of belonging and an individual's cultural background

Thalita Lima
fotografia | redação | comunicação para o impacto socioambiental | arte
Translate twice as fast impeccably
Get Started
Our online Events!

Try Bureau Works Free for 14 days

ChatGPT Integration
Get started now
The first 14 days are on us
Free basic support