Theorizing Pedagogy for Heritage Language Teaching

This post is a follow-up to another I have written about maintaining national linguistic diversity that was a summary of a panel/discussion at the Heritage Language Exchange, University of California System. In this post, I summarize and respond to Guadalupe Valdés’ classic article “Heritage Language Students: Profiles and Possibilities.” Heritage language (HL) learners can be understood as people who are learning indigenous or immigrant languages that they have a heritage connection to, regardless of proficiency level. In this article, Valdés describes what is generally known about the strengths and weaknesses of HL users, and raises questions about how HLs might best be taught. After summarizing her article, I add my own thoughts to prepare for my own talk at the Heritage Language Exchange with my friend Jayson Parba about approaches to HL teaching.

Valdés, G. (2001). Heritage language students: Profiles and possibilities. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 37-77). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Two things that characterize heritage language (HL) learning as different from foreign language learning: (1) HLs (such as indigenous languages and less commonly taught immigrant languages) are not typically taught in schools and universities, and even if they are (e.g., Spanish or Arabic) they are taught in their “standard” foreign variety, making heritage speakers feel like deficient or incompetent users of the languages, and (2) HLs are languages that people learn because they have a heritage connection to them, not for socioeconomic reasons, the way people would learn English, Mandarin, or the languages of Western Europe as foreign languages (FLs). As Valdés points out at the onset of her article, “it is the historical and personal connection to the language that is salient and not the actual proficiency of individual speakers” (p. 38). In this post, I first address HL learner profiles, then possibilities for HL teaching, following the structure of Valdés’ article.

Profiles of HL speakers

In my view, heritage language speakers have a wider variety of profiles than foreign language (FL) learners, who of course are also individually varied, but still can generally fall into three main levels:

  • Basic, or don’t get much beyond beginner level. Didn’t find the language lessons that engaging, and/or didn’t have much use for learning the language beyond the formal schooling contexts in which it was learned.
  • Intermediate, or developed an everyday conversational proficiency in a restricted range of domains, e.g., related to hobbies or small talk. Many English FL speakers reach this level, because of the global dominance of English.
  • Advanced, characterized by a genuine intrinsic love of the language and culture and the seeking out of a wide range of authentic communicative contexts beyond the classroom.

Let’s now consider how much more diverse HL populations are because these levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced) don’t apply so straightforwardly. The typical HL user profile ranges from emergent (very basic knowledge of a few words/phrases) to conversational but not academic proficiency. Some HL users have receptive but not productive knowledge (i.e., they can understand but cannot produce the language). Some have oral proficiency but not textual literacy. Let’s see why.

  • Some HL users were denied the opportunity to learn their HL because of pressures of linguistic and cultural assimilation in the country where they immigrated. Hence, parents did not teach the HL to their children. Some parents (like mine) conversed with their children in the home using the HL, but since the children were not schooled in the language, they are basically uneducated in it—they cannot read and write well in it, and they have only everyday vocabulary and conversational knowledge. When it comes to pronunciation and grammar, these are quite native-like and their everyday conversation reasonably fluent, but when it comes to “proper” academic grammar and reading and writing ability, their performance is poor. Think what would happen if an English native speaker never went to school.
  • Some HL users have receptive but not productive knowledge. This is the result of a pattern in which they hear the HL spoken around them, and are addressed in it, but reply back in English. It is an expedient (convenient, easy) conversational mode for both elders and children, as everyone can communicate in their more comfortable language, but can understand when spoken to in another language. My parents and I fall into this pattern to some extent. Of course, we can also “push” communication in the other language to practice, but this goes against ease and expediency of communication. Hence, language shift occurs in families with the older generations being more productive in the HL and receptive in the dominant societal language, while younger generations are more productive in the dominant language and receptive in the HL.
  • Some HL users have oral but not textual proficiency. Related to the first point, not being schooled in your HL, you can imagine that some students can speak their HL but can’t read and write well in it, if at all, especially if it has a different writing system.

As Valdés emphasizes, let us be clear what the HL user is often not: a balanced bilingual who shows “superior use of both languages at the level of the educated native speaker” (p. 40). She explains:

While absolutely equivalent abilities in two languages are theoretically possible, individuals seldom have access to two languages in exactly the same contexts in every domain of interaction. Neither do they have opportunities to use two languages to carry out the exact same functions with every person with whom they interact. Thus, they do not develop identical strengths in both languages. (pp. 40-41)

In other words, our language acquisition is driven by social and practical considerations in our everyday living environments. For example, while first-generation immigrants are likely to remain first language (L1) preferent throughout their whole lives if they immigrated as adults even if they do learn the new country’s language to some extent as well, their children and grandchildren will be dominant in the new country’s language. By the fourth generation, most individuals in that family (unless they keep on marrying more newly arrived immigrants) will have lost their HL, due to no more social and practical reason to maintain it. And this of course varies from diaspora to diaspora (there are many diasporas of Spanish speakers in the U.S.), community to community, family to family, individual to individual.

Next, Valdés discusses social class, one of my favorite topics. Within the same diaspora, you have people from many class backgrounds. Consider that in Inner Circle English-speaking countries like the U.K. and U.S., you have many class-based and racial/ethnic varieties of English. Well guess what: it is the same with the national languages of the countries immigrants came from. They may speak “standard” varieties or lower-class or ethnic minority varieties of those languages. And the same ideologies and prejudices that we are familiar with, with regard to distinguishing L1 English speakers from each other, apply to those HLs:

To make matters even more complex, many immigrant students will often be speakers of nonprestige varieties of their heritage language. They may speak a rural variety of the language or a stigmatized variety associated with non-academic uses of language, or their productive abilities may be limited to a very narrow repertoire of styles and registers. (Valdés, 2001, p. 44)

I think what Valdés means here is that some students may not have academic styles/registers, may not speak the “standard” variety of the HL, and may not be very literate in the HL. But the students who fit that mold also have repertoires that are narrow in another sense: while they may speak the “standard”/academic register, they may not be well versed in diverse styles/registers from different regions of the country because they’re from the dominant ethnicity and class. In any case, when these HLs are taught in the classroom, the same raciolinguistic discourses of standardization and appropriacy can be applied, just as they can with the English language (Flores & Rosa, 2015). And the ones who apply them may be the members of the HL community themselves:

Kroch [1978] argues that dominant social groups tend to mark themselves off from lower-status groups by means of language and that speakers of prestige or high language varieties deliberately work to distance themselves linguistically from the nonelite groups in their society. This would suggest that speakers of prestige varieties consciously and unconsciously work to distance themselves from their nonelite co-nationals. Members of nonelite groups, on the other hand, must consciously work to acquire ways of speaking that characterize the elite groups to which they aspire to belong. (p. 45)

Given this discussion, I identify four types of discrimination that can occur within an HL community. Often, they are inter-related:

  • Class-based, i.e., middle-class varieties of the HL are privileged, as are middle-class literacy practices
  • Dialect-based, i.e., “standard” dialects of the HL are taught (e.g., Spain Spanish, France French) and others are denigrated or marginalized as not appropriate for formal HL classes (e.g., Mexican or Puerto Rican Spanish, Québec French)
  • Ethnicity-based, i.e., the accent of the ethnolinguistic group to which that language is seen as “native” is privileged, e.g., people who speak Filipino (Pilipino/Tagalog, the Philippines’ national language) with a Tagalog rather than a Visayan accent get to decide what is a “proper” Filipino accent
  • Generation-based, i.e., the language norms of older generations are privileged over translanguaging with other languages (e.g., the new country’s language) and emergent forms of younger speakers… even though older generations tend to be better at translanguaging multi-dialectically within the HL, or between the HL and other languages of the home country, for obvious reasons (they have more of those language resources)

Again, because we have SO MANY WAYS/PROFILES of speaking the HL, we get all these tensions within communities of HL speakers as to what to count as HL progress (how to assess HL proficiency and learning progress), what the norms/standards should be, etc. But to sum up PROFILES of HL learners, we can see their strengths and weaknesses are as follows:

  • Strengths over foreign language (FL) learners: some immersion experience, intuitive grammar knowledge, knowledge of cultural pragmatics, may have oral conversational proficiency
  • Weaknesses in their HL: lack of explicit grammar knowledge, lack of reading/writing skills and other literacy skills that require formal training, may use stigmatized features of the HL (dialectal, class-based, etc.)

Profiles can “clash” in mixed HL classes—for example, my friend who teaches a 300-level Filipino HL class at a U.S. university has noted that some students whose families didn’t pass on Filipino to them, and who didn’t learn Filipino until they got to university, went through FIL 101/102/201/202 and know the grammar, but are still not orally fluent because they’ve effectively learned Filipino as an FL… while others in the 300-level Filipino class who speak Filipino at home and are orally fluent, and tested directly into the 300-level in the placement test, have no explicit understanding of grammar (i.e., even though they know intuitively what the right grammar is, they have no idea why). In other words, while some HL speakers have the strengths/weaknesses above, some HL speakers in a mixed class are effectively more like FL speakers of their HL in terms of language acquisition strengths, weaknesses, and domains.

Possibilities for HL Teaching

In an HL class, you have to consider where you want to take the students. Given the wide variety of profiles, “discussions among practitioners at all levels are characterized by strong disagreements about appropriate outcomes and goals of instruction” (p. 48). On pp. 48-49, Valdés provides a long list of the disagreements. Should we use benchmarks used in foreign language instruction, like the CEFR? Should we promote the “standard” variety, even if it is foreign? How do we best teach reading and writing? To what extent do we encourage translanguaging, especially in language revitalization contexts? If there is a lack of curricular materials, resources, and assessments (which is usually the case with HLs, many of which are less commonly taught languages or LCTLs), where should they come from and what should they look like? And then we have to contend with the Access Paradox: how do we give students access to learn “standard” varieties of the target language without marginalizing their language knowledge in formal education settings, contributing to sociolinguistic inequalities?

As Valdés laments midway through the article (pp. 50-51), HL teaching and learning has not been as well theorized as FL and SL (i.e., foreign and second language) teaching and learning. The reason for this, I think, is that most applied linguistics scholarship is in English, about English (as FL or SL), and no one speaks English as an HL! 😆

But we have enough insights, I think, from FL and SL teaching to inform HL teaching—especially since HL teaching seems to lie somewhere in the middle, individual considerations aside. Valdés says that we “have not yet developed theories… about how standard dialects are acquired, how bilinguals expand their range in each language, or how skills transfer across languages” (p. 51)… and yet we can consult leading sources about these topics when it comes to how standard dialects of English are acquired (e.g., Cummins & Man, 2007), how students in Spain expand their range in regional HL (Basque) + Spanish + English languages (e.g., Cenoz & Gorter, 2011, 2020), and how literacy skills transfer across Chinese and English among students in Hong Kong (e.g., Lin, 2016, Chap. 5). There are also universal principles for language acquisition and maintenance, which I come to next.

A repeated theme throughout the article is that people maintain languages to the extent that they need to. Language acquisition may be driven by the requirements of a course to some extent, but maintenance and use depend on real world needs. As Blommaert and Horner (2017) put it, a person’s language knowledge reflects

their trajectories through social life, in which specific sets of resources were gathered, developed, shed, and replaced in a continuous process of repertoire change. … To put it simply, mobile people take along just the amount of linguistic resources they require, and during their journeys, these resources are complemented by a continuous feed of new ones. (p. 9)

This complements the argument of Joshua Fishman (1991), cited in Valdés’ article—that language maintenance depends on transmission across generations of family and community members: “He [Fishman] maintains that schools alone cannot reverse language shift, and he suggests steps that communities need to take to create an environment in which the minority language can both grow and thrive beyond the classroom” (p. 52).

Why do people want to maintain the language, and in what ways do they define “maintaining” it? What kind of interactions do they have using the language that promote increased desire to participate in such interactions? What classroom activities promote people’s positive attitudes towards the language and cooperation to maintain it? How do we educate teachers to implement such activities with an accompanying understanding of the community’s sociolinguistic situation? (p. 53)

Valdés goes on to address “standard” dialect acquisition and how to acquire prestige varieties, which I will skip over because this begs the question of whether such as target is realistic. On the other hand, I do agree with her question: “What kinds of language exposure (e.g., reading, writing, viewing and analysis of videos, and studying formal grammar) contribute most to the development of sociolinguistic sensitivity and the awareness that some formal [or informal] styles are inappropriate in certain contexts?” (p. 56). What I’m hinting at is not teaching of “standard” forms but development of sociolinguistic awareness, and of course increased proficiency in a wider range of skills and domains, as an important HL teaching and learning goal. If HL speakers don’t live in their grandparents’ country of origin, what use is the “standard” dialect to them? (On the other hand, when it comes to translanguaging (TL), I feel that more skilled/artful TL happens in the home country than in the diaspora; in the diaspora, TL can be a “fallback” do to lack of HL proficiency… this is not the case when it comes to the online TL of people in the home country. More sociolinguistic research is needed in this area, as well as more teaching to highlight how to TL skillfully using people in the home country as models and language/culture brokers, rather than pretending they’re monolingual speakers of the HL.)

In other words, what use is ANY FORM of the target language or ANY FORM of translanguaging if it is not used in everyday social practices? This is where I come to my own opinion of what HL teaching would look like. I propose linguistic ethnography of everyday language practices + academic, critical language awareness raising exercises about these, rather than teaching standard/literary forms of the HL for climbing the CEFR ladder or reading Don Quixote or the Bhagavad Gita. No one studies any form of language if there is no practical or social reason. Even those who study Shakespeare, Don Quixote, or the Bhagavad Gita do so for practical, social reasons: they are literary folk in literary communities of practice.

So what should HL learners study instead? Towards the end of her paper, Valdés talks about three modes of language use, one which HL learners are good at, and two they are weak at.

  • HL learners are good at the interpersonal mode: spontaneous, contextualized, pragmatic everyday conversation.
  • They are weak in the representational mode: interpreting or “reading between the lines” when it comes to culture-specific texts of many sorts (e.g., films, books, posters, poetry), because the culture is unfamiliar even if the language is not.
  • They are also weak in the presentational mode: giving a written or oral presentation, in formal/academic language, in the target language.

So how do we work on representational and presentational modes? Not by climbing the CEFR ladder or analyzing Don Quixote or the Bhagavad Gita, but by asking students to be linguistic ethnographers with regard to everyday language practices, and analyzing these via academic, critical language awareness raising exercises (this would involve translanguaging in students’ dominant language, e.g., English). For example, students can audio-record a family dinner table conversation or other at-home conversation (Li, 2000), do a linguistic landscape analysis (Leung & Wu, 2012), or analyze online activity (Sultana, Dovchin, & Pennycook, 2015) in the HL. This lets students draw on their current HL knowledge to analyze the pragmatics and develop further metalinguistic awareness by engaging in classroom discussions about the recorded data. These various kinds of linguistic ethnographies are very, very adaptable to specific contexts and communities. Students can translanguage, using their academic abilities in English, to research/document use of their HLs, while paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, pragmatics, different registers, etc., and expanding their HL knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the class is diverse: less proficient speakers can learn from more proficient speakers, and people come with different cultural and linguistic funds of knowledge/expertise anyway. In fact, by giving students a wide range of possible data sources to analyze, everyone can bring in something they’re an expert in, and also learn new things from one another. In this way, HL speakers work on the representational mode.

These activities also help people become more textually literate: they may have to transcribe the data, put it in PPTs, in essays, etc., also working on their second weakness, the presentational mode. While the analysis will involve much translanguaging, the final presentation of findings should probably not (except when quoting data). Students can translanguage to plan their oral presentation in the target language only, or their essays in the target language only… so ultimately, even with translanguaging, they will build proficiency in the target language as well. Such activities are preferable to grammar translation with no social context, overly traditional fairy/folk tales (exception: these multilingual storybooks are still great for young learners!), or canonized, elite academic literature that would put many HL speakers way out of their depth (difficulty-wise) and have no practical use. Working with ethnographic and linguistic landscape data allows HL users to develop the interpretive and presentational modes, those “under-exercised muscles” of HL use, using the HL only at certain times to build proficiency, and yet, it’s not boring. It’s always relevant and contemporary. (Besides, HL learners are going to be better at doing these analyses than FL learners, because of certain pragmatic and cultural knowledge they already have… and they have more investment and personal interest in “naturalistic” language learning data, compared to most FL learners.)

That is why I think these are the perfect kinds of activities for HL teaching—they are so fluid and easily able to fit different contexts, communities, domains and diasporas. They are not elitist, they are not discriminatory based on class or dialect or generation, they are collaborative, and they value everyone’s language practices as legitimate forms of inquiry, as well as everyone’s knowledge to interpret the practices. As Valdés states with regard to learning aims and how to reconcile teachers’ and students’ knowledge:

Heritage language speakers need to learn how to read skillfully in the heritage language, to interpret subtle meanings found in both oral and written texts, and to present information in both oral and written forms intended for audiences with which they do not have immediate contact. … Similarly, language teachers brought in from countries where the languages are spoken have little or no idea about bilingualism and about the language competencies of heritage students who have been raised in this country. (p. 66)

This is why we need to foster collaborative linguistic inquiry, but it can be academic and intellectual without being elitist. It needs to find a way to position everyone—all teachers, all students, individually diverse as their HL knowledge and whole language repertoires may be—as language experts while meeting the learning aims. The products of the linguistic ethnographies (presentations and papers about family language practices, linguistic landscapes, and online communication) can in turn inform needs analysis and curriculum design for the HL teaching and learning community. Of the many questions Valdés raises in this paper, this is the one that stands out to me: “What are legitimate and valid language development goals for these students?” (p. 69). By addressing this question and also adapting to individual student variation in every repetition of the same course (as the proposed linguistic ethnographies naturally will), we can offer a pedagogy for HL learning and teaching that builds metalinguistic awareness (to analyze language explicitly), critical language awareness (about domains of language use, language ideologies, and language inequalities), and HL proficiency in the representational and presentational modes, in authentic areas of communication that the learners select for themselves and share with one another.

By language teaching possibilities, we can think of where we want to take the students in terms of language learning aims and outcomes. But there is a more profound meaning behind the word “possibility.” In articulating “pedagogy of possibility,” Kumaravadivelu (2001) talks about helping students to realize that the forms of social organization and the sense of selves that we take for granted in education can be reshaped in intentional and perceivable ways, and when students realize how these new identities (new ways of seeing ourselves and others) can play out in one classroom context, they can transfer them to other classroom contexts or out-of-class contexts. Valdés concludes that “heritage language speakers bring with them many strengths and many different abilities, and heritage communities are very different from each other. In preparing ourselves to teach heritage students, we must see their strengths, value them, and take joy in the fact that in spite of negative sentiments toward non-English languages in this country, many languages are alive and well” (p. 69).

Finally, if we want communities to continue to maintain and develop their languages themselves and not just place the whole burden on HL teachers, people in the communities must have reasons to use their HLs beyond the HL class. To foster this need, there must be connections between the HL classrooms and wider HL-speaking communities that can be built through linguistic-ethnography-based pedagogy that makes HL learning pleasurable, practical, and proficiency-building. In such pedagogy, we can embrace the linguistic diversity in communities and put everyone on equal footing, so that people recognize each other’s funds of linguistic and cultural knowledge and varied literacy practices—addressing the sociolinguistic inequities that pervade HL education as in any other form of language education.


Blommaert, J., & Horner, B. (2017). Mobility and academic literacies: An epistolary conversation. London Review of Education, 15(1), 2-20. 

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Cummins, J., & Man, E. Y.-F. (2007). Academic language: What is it and how do we acquire it? In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 797-810). Boston, MA: Springer.

Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and emprical foundations of assistance to threated languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

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Leonet, O., Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2020). Developing morphological awareness across languages: Translanguaging pedagogies in third language acquisition. Language Awareness29(1), 41-59.

Leung, G. Y., & Wu, M. H. (2012). Linguistic landscape and heritage language literacy education: A case study of linguistic rescaling in Philadelphia Chinatown. Written Language & Literacy, 15(1), 114-140.

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Lin, A. (2016). Curriculum mapping and bridging pedagogies. Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice (pp. 77-110). Singapore: Springer.

Sultana, S., Dovchin, S., & Pennycook, A. (2015). Transglossic language practices of young adults in Bangladesh and Mongolia. International Journal of Multilingualism, 12(1), 93-108.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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