Cultural Characteristics and Considerations

What are some common cultural characteristics of heritage language learners?

Heritage language learners often demonstrate1:

  • Deep connections to culture(s) associated with the heritage language 
  • Strong personal attitudes about and motivations for learning the heritage language
  • Complex relationships between their own identities and the heritage language

Cultural knowledge is an important aspect of heritage language learning. For many HLLs, the heritage language is tied to notions of self, family, and/or identity. An unfamiliar approach to learning the language, or an approach that causes learners to have low self-esteem about their linguistic abilities, can be seen as a threat to a more personal relationship with the heritage language or culture (Showstack, 2017).

While second language anxiety often affects non-heritage students, HLLs can also experience negative reactions to their language learning experiences, and this may be tied to their knowledge of the heritage culture. As HLLs are often expected to have a more developed understanding of the heritage culture than other students, a failure to live up to these expectations can lead to undue stress, discomfort, and feelings of inadequacy (Xiao & Wong, 2014). These expectations can come from parents, teachers, classroom peers, or even the student herself. 

To create a safe and inclusive environment for cultural learning, educators can:

  • Avoid making assumptions about HL students’ prior knowledge of and experience with the heritage culture
  • Dedicate time to exploring, constructing, and reflecting on personal connections with the language
  • In reviewing lessons, curriculum, and assessment materials, ask questions like: Are these materials heavily skewed towards a region or perspective? What else can I do to represent the experiences and backgrounds of all my students? 

1. Beaudrie et al., 2014; Carreira & Chik, 2018; Leeman et al., 2011