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Teaching the Speakers: Heritage Language Learners and the Classroom Texas Language Center Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies The University of Texas at Austin Saturday, April 9 th , 2011.

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Teaching the Speakers: Heritage Language Learners and the ClassroomTexas Language Center Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian StudiesThe University of Texas at AustinSaturday, April 9th, 2011
Teaching Heritage Speakers in the Foreign Language Classroom – Focusing on the Least Commonly Taught Languages

Maggie Harrison, Ph.D.

presentation topics
Presentation Topics
  • Definition of a Heritage Language
  • Who are Heritage Speakers – Definitions of a Heritage Language Learner
  • Characteristics of Typical Heritage Language Learners
  • Heritage Language Speakers: Big and Small Minority Groups – how it translates into language course availability at the university level
  • Heritage Language Speakers in University Foreign Language Courses
presentation topics cont
Presentation Topics – Cont.
  • Heritage Language Speakers and Their Impact on Classroom Instruction in a Foreign Language Classroom
    • Disadvantages
    • Advantages
  • What’s Next? – Proposed Solutions:
    • Ideal Scenario
    • Making the Best of What We Have
  • The Importance of Collaboration
what is heritage language
What is Heritage Language?
  • Broad sense: the term ‘heritage language’ can describe linguistic acquisition in many different contexts;
  • Importance of social circumstances as in variables differentiating heritage speakers from other naturalistic bilinguals;
  • Naturalistic exposure tothe heritage language; however, this language is by definition a nonhegemonic minority language within a majority-language environment;
  • Heritage language is the family language used and heard in restricted environments;(Rothman, 2007)
  • Heritage language learner need not be a fluent speakerof the heritage language; however, it is assumed that a heritage speaker has, to a greater or lesser degree, acquired some level of proficiency. (Valdés, 2001)
who are heritage speakers
Who are Heritage Speakers?


“Individuals who speak their first language, which is not English, in the home, or are foreign-born” – this definition links individuals to their home language and includes both native and foreign born. /Campbell & Peyton, 1998, p. 38/

“… someone who has had exposure to a non-English language outside the formal education system. It most often refers to someone with a home background in the language, but may refer to anyone who has had in-depth exposure to another language. Other terms used to describe this population include ‘native speaker,’ ‘bilingual,’ and ‘home background.’ While these terms are often used interchangeably, they can have very different interpretations.” /Draper and Hicks, 2000, p. 19/

  • Individuals having historical or personal connection to a language such as an endangered indigenous language or immigrant language that is not normally taught in school;
  • Individuals who appear in a foreign language classroom, who are raised in homes where a non-English language is spoken, speak or merely understand the HL, and are to some degree bilingual in English and the HL./Valdés, 2001, p. 37-38/
definitions cont
Definitions – Cont.

1) Simultaneousbilinguals who speak a family and a societal majority languages well as adults (maybe even better)

2) Simultaneous bilinguals who are clearly dominant in the majority language, but have some (maybe good) knowledge of the family language

3) Simultaneous / earlysequential bilinguals who speak a minority community language (not from their family) to some degree (perhaps well) and are natives of the majority language

4 ) Sequential bilinguals who acquire the majority language L2 as young children, retaining their L1 well and speaking the L2 well

5) Sequential bilinguals who acquire the majority language L2 as young children, losing most of their L1 (perhaps entirely), but speak the L2 well

6) Sequential bilinguals who acquire the majority language L2 as adolescent/young adults, retaining their L1 well and speaking the L2 well

7) Sequential bilinguals who acquire the majority language L2 as adolescent/young adults, retaining their L1 well and speaking their L2 okay

8) Sequential bilinguals who acquire the majority language L2 as adolescent/young adults, losing some proficiency in their L1 and speaking the L2 well

9) Monolingual child acquirers of the majority language who have parents or grandparents who are speakers of a heritage language and they have strong cultural/emotional ties to the family language, but do not speak the family language at all

10) Monolingual child acquirers of the majority language who have parents or grandparents who are speakers of a heritage language, but they have little (perhaps no) overt connections to the heritage language/culture

/Rothman, 2009/

two main types of hl
Two Main Types of HL

Given the heterogeneous nature of the HL speaker population and the resulting difficulty

establishing one clear definition for heritage language, a simple dichotomous comparison of HL

versus FL students is not appropriate for comparing the language use and skills of these


Therefore, the primary purpose of Kondo-Brown’s (2005) study was to explore which subgroups

within the HL population demonstrated language behaviors that are distinctively different from

any of the remaining groups. Results of the study suggested that only students with at least one

parent speaking the HL were significantly different from any of the remaining groups.

  • Competent (parent group)
  • Identity (grandparent and descent group)
  • FL

/Kondo-Brown, 2005/

characteristics of typical heritage language learners competent hll
Characteristics of Typical Heritage Language Learners (Competent HLL)
  • HL students have acquired nearly 90% of the phonological system of a prestige dialect of their ancestral language.
  • They have acquired 80% to 90% of the grammatical rules that govern word, phrase, sentence, and discourse production and recognition.
  • They have acquired extensive vocabularies; however, the semantic range of their vocabulary is limited to just a few socio-cultural domains.
  • They have typically acquired sociolinguistic rules that govern the choice of registers appropriate for verbal interaction with different members of their families and others with whom they converse.
5) They have learned and adopted many of the customs, values, and traditions (collectively “culture”) that define the ethnolinguistic community into which they were born.

6) They rarely have opportunities – Saturday and after-school programs notwithstanding – to gain literacy skills in their ancestral languages.

7) They present a wide range of reasons for wanting to study their ancestral languages.

/Campbell & Rosenthal, 2000, p. 167-168/

heritage language speakers big and small minority groups
Heritage Language Speakers: Big and Small Minority Groups
  • commonly-taught languages (i.e. Spanish)
  • less commonly taught languages (i.e. Russian)
  • truly less commonly taught languages (the least commonly taught languages) (i.e. Polish)
heritage language speakers to teach or to facilitate
Heritage Language Speakers: To Teach or To Facilitate?
  • Classification of Heritage Learners According to Language Proficiency
  • Addressing the Needs of the Heritage Language Learners
  • Availability of Appropriate Courses, Curriculum Design, Teaching Materials
Heritage Language Speakers

Their Impact on Classroom Instruction in a Foreign Language Classroom


  • Mixing learning needs of HL students with those of FL students – unequal initial levels
  • Neither of the groups get full benefit of the learning experience
  • HL students’ presence can be/often is intimidating for FL students and raises learning filters
  • Challenge for instructors: HL students may use dialects, slangs, fossilized forms of inappropriate grammar, syntax, etc., frequent use of code switching, frequent interruption for clarification
  • Need to identify their gaps (resulting from incomplete acquisition or attrition)
heritage language speakers their impact on classroom instruction in a foreign language classroom
Heritage Language SpeakersTheir Impact on Classroom Instruction in a Foreign Language Classroom


  • HL students are representatives of the language and culture of TL thereby helping to remove the aura of abstractness from a new and less common language
  • HL students can be a wonderful resource of cultural information
  • HL students are often conduits to ethnic communities, the presence of which can further function as an extended linguistic community
  • HL students in a FL classroom provide opportunities to implement ‘less common pedagogies’: explore sociolinguistic principles, raise learners’ consciousness about issues of identity and language, and provide class work that expands linguistic, sociolinguistic, and pragmatic competence. /Valdés, 1995/
what s next proposed solutions
What’s Next? – Proposed Solutions

Ideal Scenario:

  • Separate courses for HL and FL students
  • Different levels of heritage language courses addressing HL speakers’ needs
  • Appropriate placement tests
  • Individualized Instruction Courses (I. I.)
Making the Best of What We Have & How to Go About It:
  • Know Thy Student!
  • Understand each population/group of students in a given course – ask students to write down their reasons for taking the course, provide information about other FLs studied or spoken
  • Identify the HL speakers in the group and their specific language needs and expectations
  • Acknowledge the nature of the class and its mixed HL and FL population (in a FL classroom)
Build a Community in Your Classroom
  • Create classroom atmosphere conducive not only to learning but to interacting and making connections with other students (in small groups if possible)
  • Organize classroom (if possible) to facilitate interaction on group level (setting up chairs, tables, teaching aids, etc.) – feeling of a community
  • Encourage work in pairs and in groups (assign activities which require work in pairs, small groups, and class collaboration)
  • Communicate with students who may have difficulties in interacting and encourage them to join in
  • Respect in-class support system (work pairs and groups)
Always Work With Context
  • Build grammar and vocabulary introductions around a clear context
  • Use visual aids whenever possible
  • Incorporate each of the four language components into your class whenever possible (listening, speaking, reading, writing)
  • Use Communicative Method of Teaching TL
  • Use Authentic Materials in Class
Do Not Rely on Final Course Evaluations to Tell You How Successful the Course Is/Was
  • ‘Take pulse’ in class regularly
  • Suggestion box (typed comments)
  • ‘Venting Forum’ (provide an open forum for all students to share their frustration with the learning process and its challenges, especially grammatical challenges, ask all students to contribute by offering their suggestions on overcoming the difficulties or simply by presenting their weak points
  • Always address issues as they appear (discouraged students, test results, comments on class content and level of difficulty, types of assignments, clarity and usefulness of textbooks, workbooks, teaching aids, handouts, etc.)
Present TL Culture Aspects
  • Involve HL students and allow them to share their own perception of culture and speak about their own identity
  • Encourage class discussion about culture and traditions and allow HL students take lead; compare and contrast cultures and traditions
how do these suggestions translate into helping hl speakers
How do these suggestions translate into helping HL Speakers?
  • The four components help all students work on all aspects of language and present HL speakers with an opportunity to practice their skills further without leaving them disinterested.
  • Using TL in class provides an opportunity for FL and HL students to hear the language in its academic use.
  • By working together in pairs and groups, HL and FL students collaborate on language tasks and can help one another in furthering their skills by negotiating meaning. (Blake and Zyzik, 2003)
In peer tutoring heritage language speakers assist their native English speaking peers. (Quintanar-Sarellana, Huebner and Jensen, 1993)
  • In reciprocal tutoring heritage learners share their expertise and non-native learners, in turn, help with grammatical terminology. (Potowski, 2002)
  • Teaching Bottom-Up and Top-Down helps HL students to approach language both from its basic and from a more advanced level.
  • HL students in class can be helpful in modeling exercises and activities.
The Importance of Collaboration Among Instructors Teaching Heritage Language Speakers
  • Sharing challenges of teaching in a mixed HL/FL classroom
  • Talking about the benefits of a mixed HL/FL classroom
  • Exchanging ideas about optimal teaching methodologies, activities, exercises, teaching aids
  • Collaborating on design and development of teaching materials and aids, possibly textbooks
  • Collaborating with researchers on studies in order to measure the effect of HL speakers’ presence in a FL classroom and FL students and usefulness of FL classroom instruction to HL speakers


Blake, R.J. & Zyzik, E.C. (2003). Who’s Helping Whom? Learner/Heritage Speakers’ Networked Discussion in Spanish. Applied Linguistics, 24. 519-544.

Campbell, R. & Peyton, J.K. (1998). Heritage language students: A valuable language resource. The ERIC Review, 6(1), 38- 39.

Campbell, R.N. & Rosenthal, J.W. (2000). Heritage Languages. In J.W. Rosenthal (Ed.), Handbook of Undergraduate Second Language Education. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. 165-183.

Draper, J.B. & Hicks, J.H. (2000). Where we’ve been; what we’ve learned. In J.B. Webb & B.L. Miller (Eds.), Teaching heritage language learners: Voices from the classroom. Yonkers, NY: American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages. 15-35.

Kondo-Brown, K. (2005). Differences in Language Skills: Heritage Language Learner Subgroups and Foreign Language Learners. Modern Language Journal, 89 (4), 563-581.

Potowski, K.(2002). Experiences of Spanish Heritage Speakers in University Foreign-Language Courses and Implications for Teacher Training. ADFL Bulletin 33, 35-42.

Quintanar-Sarellana, R., Huebner, T. & Jensen, A. (1993). Tapping a Natural Resource: Language Minority Learners as Foreign Language Tutors. In B.J. Merino, H.T. Trueba, & F.A. Samaniego (Eds.), Language and Culture in Learning: Teaching Spanish to Native Speakers of Spanish. London: Falmer. 208-221.

Rothman, J. (2009). Child Bilingual Acquisition with Non-Target Competence: Attrition, Incomplete Acquisition and/or Something Else? The Ohio State University Workshop Series on Selected Topics in Second Language Acquisition.

Rothman, J. (2007). Heritage speaker competence differences, language change and input type: Inflected infinitives in heritage Brazilian Portuguese. International Journal of Bilingualism, 11 (4), 359-389.

Valdés, G. (2001). Heritage Language Students: Profiles and possibilities. In J.K. Peyton, D.A. Ranard & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics/Delta Systems. 37-77.

Valdés, G. (1995). The Teaching of Minority Languages as Academic Subjects: Pedagogical and Theoretical Challenges. Modern Language Journal, 79 (3), 299-328.