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Portraying Heritage Language Speakers

Heritage language speakers are bilinguals with a difference.

Post written by François Grosjean.

A few months ago, I received an email from California-based Susanna Zaraysky, a polyglot, world traveler, language ambassador and teacher. She told me of her recent trip to Kyrgyzstan and her experience as a Russian heritage speaker in a country where Russian is an official language along with Kyrgyz. It reminded me of my own experience as a returnee to France at age eighteen after spending ten years in English-speaking schools.

Heritage language speakers share many of the characteristics already discussed in earlier posts in this blog, but the way these characteristics are intertwined make them a special class of bilinguals.

They have usually been exposed to their heritage language (e.g. Spanish in the US) at home and hence, for many, it is their first language. They acquired the majority language (e.g. English) either as very young children through contact with people outside the home or when they started going to school. In his book, Hunger of Memory, writer Richard Rodriguez relates how he started school in Sacramento knowing just 50 words of English.

Because the heritage language is usually their first language, these bilinguals often have little or no accent in that language. The advantages are many but there are also some disadvantages such as that people expect you to know the language fluently as well as the culture that goes with it. In her blog (see here), Susanna Zaraysky writes that the internet café clerk in Kyrgyzstan was rude to her because she was not familiar with the local computer practices. Had she spoken Russian with a strong accent, she writes, he would have been more understanding.

Heritage language speakers usually change their language dominance when they start going to school, and with time they may well use their home language less and less to the point of starting to forget it (see here). Rodriguez evokes this vividly in his book when he writes, "As I grew fluent in English, I no longer could speak Spanish with confidence."

These speakers become literate in their school language but less often in their first language. And even if they do learn to read and write their heritage language such as when they take it as a subject in school, the level reached may not be the same as with their second, dominant, language. Personally, I recall having to struggle for a long time to bring my written French up to par when I came back to France at age eighteen, and even now I bless the developers of good French grammar and spell checkers which I sometimes call upon when I write French!

The domains of use of the heritage language may often be limited (e.g. home, family and some friends), and very often these bilinguals may not know the vocabulary of more specialized domains. Susanna Zarayksy mentions a phone call she had with her landlord in Ukraine when the electricity broke down in her apartment. She didn't know the translation equivalent of words such as "circuit breaker" and "electric outlet" in Russian and consequently had problems understanding what he was telling her.

Having fewer domains of life covered by a heritage language makes translation into it more difficult. As we saw in an earlier post (see here), unless bilinguals have domains covered by both languages, or have acquired their other languages via translation equivalents, they may not have the resources to produce an adequate translation.

Finally, heritage language speakers may not be fully bicultural. Of course, they know a lot more about their heritage culture than, say, someone who is learning the language and culture for the first time in school. As Susanna Zarayksy writes about meals in Kyrgyzstan: "Cottage cheese filled blini and dill laced salads at breakfast were like being at my mom's house". This said, there will be times when they may be surprised by certain behaviors and attitudes in their first culture.

Even though language heritage speakers are a special class of bilinguals, they have a real head start in their first language and culture which can blossom to more complete competence in the right environment. In addition, they are invaluable ambassadors between the two or more linguistic and cultural groups they belong to, within a nation and across nations. It is something they should be proud of!

Photo courtesy of Susanna Zaraysky.


Richard Rodriguez (1983). Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books.

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area (see here).

François Grosjean's website.

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