Linguistic Characteristics and Considerations

What are some common linguistic characteristics of heritage language learners? 

Despite the learner diversity in HL classrooms, a growing body of research has identified several shared characteristics and competencies within this student population.

We will now look at some of the common linguistic features of HLLs that are important to consider in the classroom.

Heritage learners may demonstrate1:

  • Native-like pronunciation
  • Strong listening and speaking skills
  • Intuitive (if simplified) understanding of grammatical structures
  • Strong command of high-frequency vocabulary learned at home/in the community

In addition to these strengths, educators must also be aware of some of the challenges that HLLs may face in the language classroom. These can include2:

  • Limited literacy skills or metalinguistic awareness in the heritage language, especially compared with speaking and listening skills
  • More experience with home-based, social, or informal contexts than with school-based language and contexts

It is important for teachers to recognize and validate the unique knowledge that HLLs do bring to the classroom based on their experiences, and to build on these.

Given the various contexts in which learners have learned the heritage language, it is also important to think about differences in the language that may be present in classrooms with HL learners, including3:

  • non-standard varieties
  • regional dialects
  • different registers

Research has shown that all varieties of the language should be explored, respected, and celebrated in the HL context, as this leads to increased self-confidence among learners who bring diverse linguistic backgrounds to their language classroom, as well as a greater appreciation for and understanding of different communities where the heritage language is spoken4. Some strategies to maintain an inclusive classroom environment include, but are not limited to:

  • Avoid labelling non-standard or regional varieties as incorrect or inappropriate
  • Encourage exploration behind the social meaning behind variation, as well as assumptions about the value or appropriateness of different varieties5 
  • Allow students to experiment with their different varieties or registers in different contexts

1. Carreira & Kagan, 2011; Flores, 2015; Magaña, 2015; Martin et al., 2013; Montrul, 2010; Polinsky, 2015; Polinsky & Kagan, 2007; Schwartz, 2001

2. Beaudrie et al., 2014; Carreira, 2012; Carreira & Kagan, 2011; Kagan & Dillon, 2008; MacGregor-Mendoza, 2012; Magaña, 2015; Polinsky & Kagan, 2007

3. Beaudrie, 2016; Lacorte, 2016; Malone et al., 2014; Polinsky & Kagan, 2007

4. Beaudrie et al., 2020; Correa 2011; Leeman et al., 2011

5. Leeman & Serafini, 2016