HHeritage Languages and Language Policy


Defining Heritage Languages

The term heritage language (HL) was originally coined in Canada to describe any “language other than English and French,” meaning languages spoken by Indigenous people or immigrants (Cummins, 1991, pp. 601–2). Nowadays, however, an HL commonly refers to any language “other than the dominant” one (Kelleher, 2008, p. 3). While HL is often taken to be the language used in home or familial contexts (Campbell & Peyton, 1998), others point to HL's broader cultural associations and significance, emphasizing that the HL “may or may not be spoken in the home” (Cho, Cho, & Tse, 1997, p. 106). Thus, HL can refer to any nondominant “language of personal relevance” (Fishman, 1999, cited in Van Deusen‐Scholl, 2003, p. 216); this view of HL does not hinge on proficiency (Nicholas, 2009) and recognizes that “token uses” and performances of HL can also have important semiotic, social, and identity‐building functions (Ahlers, 2017).

Like related terms such as ancestral, ethnic, primary, or native, the “heritage” label has been criticized for invoking the past (e.g., McCarty, 2008) and for primitivism (e.g., Baker & Jones, 1998), as well as for implying that a particular language is genetically endowed. The construct of HL, in some respects, runs counter to current, constructivist paradigms that view language as a product of social interaction. Similarly, early subcategories of HL “types”—for ...

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