Benefits of Bilingualism and Heritage Languages

Language competence is an essential component of personal, academic, and economic processes and success. Children of first-generation immigrants, who are raised in homes where a language other than English is spoken, grow up with a better-than-average opportunity to develop additive bilingualism, that is, proficiency in both English and their heritage language.

In American schools, many do not realize this potential. Soon after they enter school, the expectations, pressures, and desire to assimilate into the majority culture lead immigrant children to quickly abandon their heritage terminology for English, as Lily Wong Fillmore and other researchers have found.

Studies have also shown, repeatedly, the positive effects of high quality additive bilingualism on immigrant children’s academic achievement, identity development, and family relationships. Richard Brecht and William Rivers, as well as Joshua A. Fishman, Robert Cooper, and Yehudit Rosenbaum, have documented potential benefits the national economy and security. This entry describes the benefits of retaining one’s heritage language.

Heritage language speakers represent more than 175 language backgrounds in the United States. Heritage language refers to an immigrant, indigenous, or ancestral language that may have linguistic, ethnic, religious, cultural, or symbolic relevance for a speaker. In the literature, the term has been used synonymously with community language, native language, first language, primary terminology, and mother tongue although some authors make distinctions among these designations.

Despite criticisms (as reported by Colin Baker and Sylvia Jones and by Nancy Hornberger) that heritage evokes images of the past and the old rather than images of something modern, valuable, and necessary, the term has continued to be used to reflect the broad range of connections to the diverse heritages that generations of immigrants in our nation retain.

Not all heritage language speakers are the same; they differ in achieved proficiency levels, motivations, attitudes, and degrees of ethnic attachment toward the language. Indeed, some persons retain very little of their ancestral languages and are nonetheless known as heritage speakers because they retain some degree of passive knowledge of the language.

Furthermore, heritage language speakers differ from traditional foreign-language learners in that they are likely to possess cultural knowledge that enables them to understand subtle nuances and to practice culturally appropriate behaviors more readily perhaps, than do those who study the same language as a foreign language.

Often, however, heritage language speakers have not received formal instruction in the language and, thus, may lack the prestige or formal registers of the language, literacy skills, a highly developed vocabulary, and grammatical accuracy in the language. Debate exists about the characteristics and linguistic profiles of heritage language speakers because of the broad diversity of life circumstances that can connect an individual to a language.

Despite the uncertainties about what constitutes a heritage language speaker, a body of literature has been developing about the effects of heritage language maintenance on the growing population of immigrant children in the United States. One of society’s greatest ills is low academic achievement among minority students. This is illustrated by the stark achievement gap between linguistic minority students and majority students and the high school drop-out rates, especially among Latino youth.