Learners: Activity 2

Heritage learner


Read “What is a Heritage Learner?”   After hearing Raúl’s Spanish and learning about his linguistic background, would you say Raúl is speaking Spanish as a foreign language learner, a heritage language learner, or a homeland learner? Explain.


What is a Heritage Learner?

Defining the term “Heritage Language Learner” has been and continues to be a contentious and much-debated issue.  The term first appeared in the ACTFL Standards of Foreign Language Teaching (1996).  It has since been adopted and used widely in the US to refer to a "wide variety of individuals" (Potowski, 2014).  Potowski explains that what primarily differentiates the heritage learner (HL) from the second-language (L2) learner is that HLs  “are exposed to Spanish starting at birth from their family members" (p. 405).

There has been disagreement in efforts to refine that accepted but broad definition: at present there are at least two different more narrow definitions of “heritage learner.”  Valdés (2000) originally described the HL as an individual who “is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken. The student may speak or merely understand the heritage language and be, to some degree, bilingual in English and the heritage language” (Valdés, 2000, 1).

But Potowski (2014) critiques this definition as too “narrow”, in that it excludes a second kind of HL, a growing group of language students in the US who may have been raised with a “strong cultural connection to a particular ethnolinguistic group and have a ‘heritage motivation,’ but who do not speak or understand the language at all” (p. 405).

Valdés’ “narrow” definition of HL  also excludes a third type of student: someone who arrived from a Spanish-speaking country after the age of 12, and who has often developed proficiency in Spanish but who no  longer uses the language much. Potowski (2014, p. 405) classifies these students  as “native” or “homeland” Spanish speakers.

When you have finished typing your answer, click to compare your response with the Learner Language staff response.

Raúl clearly has a good level of Spanish proficiency in both listening and speaking. Raúl is clearly not a foreign language learner of Spanish like Henry; he is more proficient in the social uses of Spanish than Henry is. Because in Mexico he was “raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken”, Raúl could have been viewed as a native speaker of Spanish, at least up to the age of 8. However, at nine, he moved to the US and was immersed in an English-only environment in school, and learned English from his cousins; at that point English became his dominant language and his Spanish stopped developing.   Thus, Raúl resembles Potowski’s third category of heritage learner, a “homeland” speaker in that he arrived from a Spanish-speaking country relatively proficient in Spanish, but as he lost his Spanish dominance he increasingly came to resemble a traditional heritage learner of that language.


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