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Generally speaking, heritage language refers to a language that is spoken by a linguistic minority population. Following this general definition, the label heritage is given to a language based principally on the social status of its speakers and not necessarily on any linguistic property. Thus, while Spanish typically comes in second in terms of native speakers worldwide and has official status in a number of countries, it is considered a heritage language in the English-dominant United States. Speakers of the same heritage language raised in the same community may differ significantly in terms of their language abilities, yet be considered heritage speakers under this definition. Some heritage speakers may be highly proficient in the language, possessing several registers, while other heritage speakers may be able to understand the language but not produce it. Other individuals that simply have a cultural connection with a minority language but do not speak it may consider it to be their heritage language.
In various fields, such as foreign language education and linguistics, the definitions of heritage language become more specific and divergent. In foreign language education, heritage language is defined in terms of a student’s upbringing and functional proficiencies in the language: a student raised in a home where a non-majority language is spoken is a heritage speaker of that language if she/he possesses some proficiency in it. Under this definition, individuals that have some cultural connection with the language but do not speak it are not considered heritage students. This restricted definition became popular in the mid 1990’s with the publication of Standards for Foreign Language Learning by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Among linguists, heritage language is an end-state language that is defined based on the temporal order of acquisition and language dominance in the individual. A heritage speaker acquires the heritage language as their first language through natural input in the home environment and acquires the majority language as a second language, usually when she/he starts school. As exposure to the heritage language decreases and exposure to the majority language increases, the majority language becomes the individual’s dominant language and acquisition of the heritage language changes. The results of these changes can be seen in divergence of the heritage language from monolingual norms in the areas of phonology, lexical knowledge, morphology, and syntax. Although heritage speakers are comfortable in all registers of the dominant language, mastery of the heritage language may vary from purely receptive skills in only informal spoken language to native-like fluency.
While many linguists frame this change in heritage language acquisition as “incomplete acquisition” (see, for example, Montrul (2002)), this notion is not universally accepted. Recently, the idea that heritage languages are incomplete versions of the monolingual standard resulting from incomplete acquisition has been challenged by the idea that heritage languages are complete languages, which simply differ from monolingual standards because they are acquired in an multilingual environment.
Proficiency in heritage languages
Heritage learners have a fluent command of the dominant language and are comfortable using it in formal settings, due to their exposure to the language through formal education. Their command of the heritage language, however, varies widely. Some heritage learners may lose some fluency in the first language after beginning formal education in the dominant language. Others may use the heritage language consistently at home and with family, but receive minimal to no formal training in the heritage language and thus may struggle with literacy skills or using it in broader settings outside of the home.
Some heritage speakers explicitly study the language to gain additional proficiency. The learning trajectories of heritage speakers are markedly different from the trajectories of second language learners with little or no previous exposure to a target language. For instance, heritage learners typically show a phonological advantage over second language learners in both perception and production of the heritage language, even when their exposure to the heritage language was interrupted very early in life. Heritage speakers also tend to distinguish, rather than conflate, easily confusable sounds in the heritage language and the dominant language more reliably than second language learners. In morphosyntax as well, heritage speakers have been found to be more native-like than second language learners, although they are typically significantly different from native speakers.
Controversy in definition
The definition of a heritage speaker in general and for specific languages continues to be debated. The debate is of particular significance in such languages as Chinese, Arabic, and the different languages of India and the Philippines, where speakers of multiple languages or dialects are seen as heritage speakers of a single standard language taught for geographic, cultural or other reasons (Mandarin Chinese, Classical Arabic, Hindi, or Tagalog, respectively).
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- Polinsky (2008)
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