The Alliance provides answers to frequently asked questions about heritage languages. Some FAQs also have companion Heritage Briefs that provide further details about the topic.
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- What is a heritage language?
- Who is a heritage language learner?
- What is a heritage language program?
- What languages are taught as heritage languages in the United States?
- Where do community-based heritage language programs find funding?
- What is the difference between indigenous and immigrant heritage languages in the United States?
- How do community-based heritage language programs and two-way immersion programs compare?
- What are the similarities and differences among English language, foreign language, and heritage language education in the United States?
- What is the identity of a heritage language speaker?
- What is language loss?
In the United States, a “heritage language” is any language other than English that is spoken by an individual, a family, or a community. Heritage languages can include immigrant languages, spoken by immigrants arriving in the United States (e.g., Spanish); indigenous languages, spoken by peoples who are native to the Americas (e.g., Navajo); and colonial languages, of the various European groups that first colonized what is now the United States (e.g., French and German). Heritage language speakers have various levels of proficiency and connection to the language and culture. Read the Heritage Brief.
A heritage language learner is a person studying a language who has some proficiency in or a cultural connection to that language through family, community, or country of origin. Heritage language learners have widely diverse levels of proficiency in the language (in terms of oral proficiency and literacy) and of connections to the language and culture. They are different in many ways from students studying the language as a foreign language. Read the Heritage Brief.
A heritage language program is any language development program that is designed to address the needs of heritage language learners/speakers. Heritage language programs may be at any level or setting, including community-based, K-12, higher education, or camps. They vary in terms of the populations they serve, goals and approaches to teaching, curriculum and materials used for instruction, funding sources, and other factors. Read the Heritage Brief.
Heritage language teaching takes place in community-based programs, public and private K-12 education, language camps, and higher education. Although there are no current, comprehensive lists of all of the languages taught as heritage languages in the United States, languages represented in the Alliance’s Heritage Language Programs Database include
- Languages indigenous to the U.S.: Anishinaabemdaa, Chinuk Wawa, Denaakk’e Athabascan, IchCinshKiin, Navajo
- Latin American and European Languages: French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian
- East Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Island Languages: Chinese, Hindi, Ilokano, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Samoan, Tibetan, Tongan, Urdu
Funding is an ongoing challenge for many community-based heritage language organizations and programs. Community-based programs receive funding from various sources, with most funding coming from tuition paid by participating families and other contributions by program participants. Programs also receive funding from foundations, non-profit organizations, the governments of the home countries of program participants, and U.S. federal or state governments (particularly programs focused on Native American languages). To learn more about where programs receive funding, read the Heritage Brief.
Indigenous heritage languages are spoken by people whose ancestors originally inhabited the area that is now the United States (Native Americans). Immigrant heritage languages are spoken by people who immigrated to the United States after European colonization. While indigenous and immigrant heritage languages are considered to be heritage languages of those who speak them and have many things in common, there are two important reasons for drawing a distinction between them: indigenous languages (Native American languages) receive special protection by the United States legal system; they are, at the same time, in danger of dying out with little hope of revitalization if children do not learn them. Immigrant heritage languages are spoken by groups of people or populations of entire countries, and thus have vitality outside the United States. Read the Heritage Brief.
Community-based heritage language and K-12 two-way immersion programs seek to develop proficiency of students in languages other than English, which are often the languages of the local community. Community-based heritage language programs are designed to address the needs of speakers of a non-English language and to develop linguistic abilities in and cultural knowledge associated with the language. Two way-immersion programs serve both students with English-language backgrounds and students who speak the partner language with their families and in their communities. These programs focus on developing proficiency in two languages -- English and the partner language -- while also developing the academic skills of the students in the program. Read the Heritage Brief.
What are the similarities and differences among English language, foreign language, and heritage language education in the United States?
English language and literacy development is one of the fundamental goals of public education in the United States. Development of English language and literacy takes place in language arts and content area classes. Foreign language instruction has been the most common way for students to learn languages other than English, primarily in language-focused classes often designed for students who do not have prior exposure to the language. Heritage language education is a newer form of language instruction, taking shape in the 1980s and designed for students who have had previous exposure to the language, cultural connections to it, and some proficiency in it. While all of these programs have development of language proficiency as their goal, student populations and instructional approaches can vary a great deal. Read the Heritage Brief.
Identity is dynamic, socially constructed, and negotiated in discourse. Understanding features of identity, and the ways that they affect speakers’ views of themselves and others, is particularly important when considering identities of heritage language speakers, who often negotiate and situate themselves within at least two different cultures and languages. Read the Heritage Brief.
An issue of major importance to heritage language communities is language loss. Language loss can occur on a personal or familial level, which is often the case with immigrant communities in the United States, or the entire language may be lost when it ceases to be spoken at all. The latter scenario has become an all-too-common threat in indigenous communities, because their languages are not spoken anywhere else in the world. A major factor influencing loss of all languages other than English in the United States is the predominance of English in the education system and wider society. Read the Heritage Brief.Back to top of the page