Does your child speak a language other than English at home? Does your child receive schooling primarily in English? If yes, congratulations on having a heritage language learner.
In the United States, English is the de facto dominant language; thus, any language other than English can be considered a “heritage language” for speakers of that language (Peyton et al., 2001). Languages other than English are often referred to as “foreign” or “second” languages. However, these languages are not foreign or second to particular individuals or communities; instead, they are familiar in a variety of ways.
What is a Heritage Language?
The term “heritage” language can be used to describe connections people have between a non-dominant language and a person, a family, or a community. In the United States, one out of five people speaks a language other than English at home. These heritage languages are a valuable asset.
Research has shown the cognitive advantages of bilinguals. Compared to students with more limited bilingual skills, individuals with higher levels of bilingualism demonstrate greater multitasking and conflict resolution (Bialystok, 2001; Poarch & Bialystok, 2015), metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness, attentional control, and problem-solving skills (Adesope et al., 2010). Fluent bilinguals also demonstrate higher educational aspiration and self-esteem, and more family solidarity and less familial conflict than limited bilinguals or English monolinguals (Portes & Hao, 1998).
Academically, bilingual students have benefited from increased vocabulary and comprehension (Andreou & Karapetsas, 2004). Aside from numerous cognitive benefits of being bilingual, children who grow up speaking a heritage language have advantages over more career and personal opportunities as well. As a parent of three heritage language learners, my ultimate goal is to raise three kids who are not only bilingual but also biliterate.
Concerns about heritage language
Parents are often concerned and think that the development of a child’s heritage language will interfere with mastery of English. Some may also think that teaching a child to be literate in the heritage language will have a negative impact on the child’s academic achievement. I understand these concerns. However, research shows a different perspective.
Heritage language use at home plays a positive role in heritage language learners’ academic success, while no detrimental influence was found for their English language development (e.g., Jang & Brutt-Griffler, 2019; Lü & Koda, 2011). Moreover, heritage language proficiency is positively related to English language proficiency and academic achievement among heritage language learners speaking a variety of heritage languages (e.g., Bankston & Zhou, 1995; Da Fontoura & Siegel, 1995).
Notably, reading and writing abilities in the heritage language had a stronger impact on students’ academic outcomes than speaking and listening skills in their heritage language (e.g., Lutz & Crist, 2009). Therefore, the development of heritage language literacy does not interfere with children’s language and literacy development in English. Instead, a child’s heritage language enhances the dominant language acquisition and academic achievement. How can we put more effort into developing children’s heritage language skills?
Parents as teachers
As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. What we do at home makes a huge difference in children’s language, literacy, and academic development. A rich home literacy environment often leads to better academic performance (Boerma et al., 2017). Studies show that if parents take an active role in children’s language and literacy development, it sets the strong foundation needed for their life-long academic success. Subsequently, we as parents need to find ways to empower our kids to embrace heritage languages and culture. There are several ways to help children develop their heritage language.
READ TO YOUR CHILD!
I can’t put more emphasis on the benefits of parent-child book reading. Research shows that children who are read to frequently from an early age enter school with better language and literacy skills, which may in turn promote children’s academic development (Scarborough & Dobrich, 1995). What’s more, reading in children’s heritage language is one of the best practices to develop language and literacy in their home language.
Parent-child book reading was not only effective in promoting heritage language learners’ second language and literacy development but also was found to benefit heritage language acquisition (Li & Fleer, 2015). When reading to your child, remember to scaffold your child to use words actively and engage in interactive conversations with you in this context.
You may ask prompt questions, expand your child’s verbalization, link the text to daily life experience, and give praise during reading. These verbal interactions during parent-child book reading can enhance children’s language and literacy skills by encouraging children’s use of language, as well as by promoting their interests in reading (Baker et al., 2001). Therefore, I always tell my husband, if you have no activities planned, go read to your kids.
I mean start to value your child’s heritage language when they are young. Language development has a critical period, especially for the minority language, which is the heritage language for heritage language learners. The acquisition of a fully native-like language capacity was constrained by age, becoming progressively more difficult to attain after a critical period (Lenneberg, 1967). Because heritage language learners in the United States primarily receive English instruction, they also suffer from heritage language loss.
If parents don’t pay more attention to their children’s heritage language development, then there is no way for children to maintain their heritage language proficiency, even orally. Therefore, use their home language as often as possible. Introduce music and shows in the heritage language. Do play-dates with children and families speaking the same heritage language. Your perspective will certainly influence the viewpoint your child takes, so start young.
ASK FOR HELP!
This might be the best tip I have – to always ask for help. If you have no idea how to facilitate reading and writing at home, search for dual language immersion programs where your child’s heritage language was taught through schooling. Look for community schools or Sunday schools, where native speakers of your child’s heritage language teach literacy to students like your child.
Ask for advice from your parent friends who also have heritage language learners at home, or even build a support group to come up with activities to facilitate children’s heritage language use together. Additionally, in this interconnected world, online websites and APPs would be extremely helpful, where you could even hire a tutor for your child. How fascinating! I always tell myself that I am not alone in this journey and I can always ask for help.
A heritage language is a valuable asset
I hope that I successfully delivered the message that your child’s home language is a valuable asset and will always be. However, to make the most of the heritage language, as parents, your support and involvement are essential to helping your child maintain their heritage language and even be biliterate in both their home language and English. Being biliterate has more advantages than we could anticipate. However, without literacy support outside of schools, it is extremely difficult for heritage language learners to learn and maintain native-like proficiency in reading and writing.
Ye Shen is a Ph.D. student in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. Her research interest lies in language and literacy development in diverse populations of people, specifically bilinguals. She is interested in reading-writing connections and cross-language transfer of reading and writing skills among bilingual students. As a mom of three heritage language learners, she also studies biliteracy development among this understudied heritage language population.
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Jang, E., & Brutt-Griffler, J. (2019). Language as a bridge to higher education: a large-scale empirical study of heritage language proficiency on language minority students’ academic success. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 40(4), 322-337.
Additional Sources Continue…
Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The biological foundations of language. Hospital Practice, 2(12), 59-67.
Li, L., & Fleer, M. (2015). Family pedagogy: parent-child interaction in shared book reading. Early Child Development and Care, 185(11–12), 1944–1960.
Lutz, A., & Crist, S. (2009). Why do bilingual boys get better grades in English-only America? The impacts of gender, language and family interaction on academic achievement of Latino/a children of immigrants. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 32(2), 346-368.
Lü, C., & Koda, K. (2011). Impact of Home Language and Literacy Support on English-Chinese Biliteracy Acquisition among Chinese Heritage Language Learners. Heritage Language Journal, 8(2), 44-80.
Peyton, J. K., Ranard, D. A., & McGinnis, S. (2001). Heritage Languages in America: Preserving a National Resource. Language in Education: Theory and Practice. Delta Systems Company Inc.
Poarch, G. J., & Bialystok, E. (2015). Bilingualism as a model for multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 113-124.
Portes, A., & Hao, L. (1998). E pluribus unum: Bilingualism and loss of language in the second generation. Sociology of Education, 269-294.
Scarborough, H. S., & Dobrich, W. (1994). On the efficacy of reading to preschoolers. Developmental Review, 14, 245–302.
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