Heritage speakers

“Why It’s Easier for Children to Become Bilingual”
“Meaty Middle” of Grammar Girl podcast episode #482
– Written by Syelle Graves, read by Mignon Fogarty

[emphasis are my own]

Many people all over the world spoke one language at home and then a different one at school, as young children. Because both languages were technically acquired in that critical period, we (and these speakers themselves!) expect them to be balanced bilinguals. However, this is rarely the case, because language dominance will occur quickly, especially if the speaker does not attend a bilingual school, or learns to read and write only in the community language. Also, if speakers don’t have other types of exposure, like regular travel to a country where they can become immersed in the other language, the school language can take over.

Linguists often refer to these bilinguals as “heritage speakers.” Heritage speakers may understand that home language better than they produce it, or, have “no accent” yet not know very basic vocabulary. The more fluent in the school language that these speakers’ parents are, the more likely the children are to lose their home language because children quickly figure out that their parents understand the school or community language. Then, their brains “resort” to the community language, in order to save resources and communicate more expediently. Heritage speakers come in many different levels of fluency, but all possess a rich and special familial and cultural connection to the home language. It can be helpful for these folks to understand that it is totally normal to default to a dominant language, and to realize how challenging it can be to maintain two languages throughout one’s life, when both languages aren’t necessary.

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