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In the United States, any language other than English that is spoken at home by a family or community is considered a “heritage language”. It makes sense, then, that someone learning a minority language in their home or community is considered a “heritage language learner”.
We’ve made our commitment to language learning very clear, so we won’t argue the value and importance of heritage language learning. Instead, we’re making the case for more and better heritage language teaching.
Heritage language learners are not foreign language learners. Heritage learners have ranging levels of proficiency—some may excel at speaking but have little to no reading or writing ability. Others may lack grammar knowledge or feel comfortable using the language only in certain capacities, such as discussing household or neighborhood topics. You cannot teach a heritage language learner the same way you would teach an English-speaking student with no prior exposure to the language. Too often, heritage learners are mixed in a classroom with true foreign language learners, which significantly complicates class and task management. This results in a less rewarding experience for both the students and teachers.
Fortunately, in recent years, heritage learners have been identified as a unique group of learners with their own needs. This distinction also comes with the realization that heritage learners would benefit from specialized classes and materials tailored for their needs.
So, what should a heritage language learning program consider and include?
In designing a custom curriculum with the Cardinal Stepinac Croatian School in New York, we’ve gained a wealth of knowledge in these areas, but there is always more to learn. Are you a heritage language learner or teacher? What else would you add to help us make the case for dedicated heritage language teaching?