Who is a heritage language learner?

Understanding your learner context will help you make an informed decision about which assessment practices will best fit your needs and the needs of your classroom. In the context of working with heritage language learners, the first step in this process is understanding what it means to be a heritage language learner

How is the term “heritage language learner” defined?

The term heritage language learner has been a source of much debate since gaining recognition over the past few decades. There are numerous ways to define what it means to be a heritage language learner, and differences among definitions reflect varying perspectives that focus on language acquisition and language exposure (i.e., when and how the heritage language was learned), linguistic proficiency (i.e., the extent to which learners are proficient in the heritage language), educational classification (i.e., how different learners are categorized in the school system), or cultural connections (i.e., the extent to which learners have parental, cultural, or community ties with the heritage language) (Leeman, 2015).

You may be familiar with Valdés’ (2000) definition of a heritage language learner, which is a “student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or merely understands the heritage language and who is to some degree bilingual in English and the heritage language”. This definition is widely used in research and practice and may be useful for pedagogical purposes.

For the purposes of this module, we will define a heritage language learner as someone with a cultural or familial relationship to a language. Heritage learners may have different degrees of exposure to the language, and different areas where they demonstrate more knowledge or familiarity with the language or culture.

Click here for a list of relevant articles and books about different definitions of heritage language learners.