Heritage languages and L2 learning

Authored by: Olga Kagan , Kathleen Dillon

The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition

Print publication date:  November  2011
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415479936
eBook ISBN: 9780203808184
Adobe ISBN: 9781136666896


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The heritage language field began developing in the late 1990s, and “the recognition of heritage language learners as a variable in second language research is recent” (Gass and Selinker, 2008, p. 23). A coherent, commonly held theory of Heritage Language Acquisition (HLA) has yet to be formulated. Scholars in countries where immigrant populations have sought formal study of their home language continue to define the term and the field itself. Since our expertise is largely limited to US issues, we will refer to heritage languages in the USA, but we think that many of the principles are also applicable to home/community language learners in the growing number of other countries with large immigrant populations. In this chapter we focus on heritage language learners (HLLs), that is those speakers of heritage languages who choose to study their home language in a K-16 setting. (In the USA K-16 refers to the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education.) We discuss the most commonly used definitions of HLLs, and we situate heritage language discussion in a historical context, within the framework of research on bilingualism and second language acquisition (SLA) as well as instructional practices. We then examine how heritage language (HL) teaching over the past 10–15 years has been tied to an increase in immigration and changing immigration patterns, which have presented the challenge of offering instruction in a “foreign” language to students who already speak that language at home. We describe who these learners are, how they are different from other language learners, and what kind of research has been done to determine their key characteristics. Finally, we recommend some research-based approaches to HL instruction.

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