Who is a heritage language learner?

The definition of “heritage language learner” that I use describes individuals who associate the target language with their cultural identity and who are not yet proficient in the language. That cultural identity, or heritage, might come from the native language of their parents or grandparents, but it might also be the language of their ancestors’ home country or a language associated with their family’s religious beliefs and practices. A great deal of the research on heritage learners focuses on those who have learned the language at home to some extent, but when we focus on the roles of identity and sociocultural context in language learning, we should also include learners who begin with little or no proficiency.

Professional Development for Teachers of Heritage Learners

Teaching heritage language learners (HLLs) effectively involves a combination of elements that overlap with language teaching in general but also differ from other groups of learners. The workshop below includes frameworks and recommendations that apply to any communicative language course, but it also takes into account the features of the learner and the context that impact heritage language instruction. HLLs have reasons for seeking proficiency that differ from each other and from non-HLLs, they have varying opportunities to use the language outside the classroom, and they have often been exposed to varieties and registers of the target language that differ from what the class is offering. Frequently, if they have some communicative competence, their proficiency may involve an imbalance of skills such as speaking skills without writing skills or strong fluency and native-like accent with weaker control of grammatical features. At the level of the context, heritage learners of commonly-taught languages create challenges when they appear in language courses with non-HLLs, and heritage learners of less-commonly-taught languages might not have access to language learning opportunities at all. In these cases, addressing HLL instruction at the level of the program and the community plays an essential role in meeting the needs of these learners.

Visit the workshop site: sites.google.com/view/lanier-teachinghlls

Teaching Heritage Language Learners Workshop - website screenshot


Websites and Organizations

National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA

Heritage Languages Special Interest Group – for members of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (actfl.org)

The Heritage Language Journal – open-source peer-reviewed academic publication

HLXchange.com – workshops and resources

Heritage Language Learner Assessment bibliography at the AELRC

Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools

Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages at CAL.org (archived site)


  • Cammarata, L., & Tedick, D. J. (2012). Balancing Content and Language in Instruction: The Experience of Immersion Teachers. The Modern Language Journal, 96(2), 251–269. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2012.01330.x
  • Curdt-Christiansen, X. L. (2016). Conflicting language ideologies and contradictory language practices in Singaporean multilingual families. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2015.1127926
  • De Costa, P. I., & Norton, B. (2017). Introduction: Identity, transdisciplinarity, and the good language teacher. Modern Language Journal, 101(Supplement), 3–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12368
  • Duff, P. A. (2015). Transnationalism, Multilingualism, and Identity. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 35(2015), 57–80. https://doi.org/10.1017/S026719051400018X
  • Engman, M. M. (2015). For Arabic heritage language learners (HLLs) the question of identity is fraught with complexities across linguistic (Ryding. Heritage Language Journal (Vol. 12). Abu-Rabia.
  • García, O., & Sylvan, C. E. (2011). Pedagogies and practices in multilingual classrooms: Singularities in pluralities. Modern Language Journal, 95(3), 385–400. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01208.x
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  • Leeman, J. (2015). Heritage Language Education and Identity in the United States. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 35, 100–119. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0267190514000245
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  • Polinsky, M. (2018). Heritage languages and their speakers (Vol. 159). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=GnNqDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Reinhardt, J. (2019). Social media in second and foreign language teaching and learning: Blogs, wikis, and social networking. Language Teaching, 52(1), 1–39. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0261444818000356
  • Ronald Ferguson, G. (2013). Language practices and language management in a UK Yemeni community. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 34(2), 121–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2012.724071org/10.1080/01434632.2012.724071
  • Spolsky, B. (2012). Family language policy – the critical domain. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2011.638072
  • Wu, M.-H., & Chang, T. P. (2012). Designing and implementing a macro-approaches-based curriculum for heritage language learners. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 145–155. https://doi.org/10.1080/17501229.2011.634913