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Teaching Heritage Speakers

Kim Potowski offers four central tenets

In the US, “heritage speakers” are students who were raised in homes where a non-English language was spoken and as a result developed some degree of proficiency in that language. Some of these bilingual students can understand only basic conversations in their heritage languages, others can speak about a variety of topics, and still others are able to write in them. The US is home to heritage speakers of many languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Hindi, Korean, and Russian.

There is a large and growing body of research that argues for the following four central tenets regarding heritage speakers.

#1: Separate heritage-speaker courses are necessary
When language courses are designed for second-language students who are still in the beginning stages of acquiring the language, proficient heritage speakers should not enroll in them. This mismatch is somewhat akin to an English-proficient student enrolling in an ESL course. The experience frequently results in a lack of student engagement and, perhaps surprisingly, not necessarily the “easy A” that some might expect. Heritage speakers need separate courses specifically designed to address their strengths and needs.

Think of it this way: if you were raised in the US, what did you study in your high school English classes? For this exercise, substitute your country and language: if you were raised, say, in Peru or Mexico, what did you study in your high school Spanish classes? Common answers include reading a wide variety of texts (classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, etc.), writing different kinds of papers, and perhaps some grammar analysis. This is generally understood as language arts. Heritage language courses should draw as much as possible from language arts, having students read and respond to texts that are at their level and interesting to them (middle school and high school teachers will want to look at work by Mike Peto describing the fantastic benefits of well-organized free voluntary reading with heritage speakers).1 This means that conjugating verbs, learning the difference between the preterite and the imperfect, and memorizing extensive spelling lists will not form the nucleus of a high-quality heritage-language course.

#2: Heritage-speaker courses should focus on critical language arts
What does critical language arts mean? Unfortunately, many students are erroneously told that their ways of speaking their heritage languages are inferior. Critical language arts involves an exploration of the social, political, and ideological aspects of language. The goal is for both students and teachers to understand that all varieties of language are equally worthwhile and that attitudes about how people use language reflect unequal power relationships. That is, typically lurking underneath criticisms about how a group of people speak are negative attitudes toward their socioeconomic class, ethnoracial group, and other social factors—even if this was not conscious or intentional.

A useful analogy is that of ice cream. Ice cream exists only through its flavors, and language exists only through its dialects.

Everyone speaks a dialect of their language and has an “accent” in it. And just as no flavor of ice cream is “better” than any other, no regional or ethnic dialect is better than any other in any intrinsic way. Also, it would be silly to argue that strawberry ice cream is “incorrect chocolate ice cream” because it is “not following the rules” of chocolate. Strawberry ice cream follows strawberry rules! It does not have to follow the rules of chocolate. Extending the analogy back to language, African American English follows the rules of African American English, and it does not have to follow the rules of any other variety of English. Every variety of every language on the planet follows its own grammar rules, even though its rules may be different from the rules that appear in books that guide users about which ways of using language have more prestige. Students should take pride in how they and their families speak their languages while simultaneously increasing their communicative capacities in their heritage languages.

#3: Teachers must become students of their heritage speakers’ communities
Many years ago in a Spanish course, a student told me that her grandmother had gifted her “unas pantallas.” For me, this word meant “screens” (on which one watches a movie or television). I didn’t understand why someone would give her granddaughter multiple screens, so I just moved on. I later learned that in Puerto Rico this word refers to earrings. I missed a great learning moment for myself and for the entire class that day; I should have asked the student what pantallas were for her.

This tenet overlaps with the previous one: we must keep our ears open to know how our students’ families use the heritage language. In addition, people raised in the US usually speak their families’ languages differently than their own relatives do, so we must also pay attention to US varieties of the heritage language. To use another Spanish example, I have seen many sources referring to the use of llamar para atrás to mean “to call back” or librería for “library” as “false cognates.” But what is false about them if some 41 million people use these phrases every day with these meanings? Words mean what their users decide they mean, even if some other people don’t particularly like the way the language is changing. It is of course a valid goal to expose students to words that are more common internationally—which will happen naturally through copious reading and the language arts approaches described above—but the words “incorrect” and “error” should be exceedingly rare in our feedback to students.

#4: Teachers of heritage-speaker courses need specialized preparation
When university students decide that they want to become high school English teachers, their campuses require them to make an important decision: do they want to teach English as a second language (ESL), or do they want to teach English language arts (ELA)? ESL and ELA programs are typically housed in different departments and lead to different licenses/certifications. A school principal cannot assign ELA classes to ESL teachers (or vice versa) because they are not legally permitted to teach each other’s classes.

I have just argued that heritage classes should more closely resemble language arts, yet it is unfortunately too common that teachers assigned to these classes were trained solely in second-language (L2) acquisition and pedagogy. There needs to be greater availability of high-quality university coursework that focuses on best practices in teaching heritage speakers. I maintain a list of online and in-person courses, conferences, and other resources for teachers at

Far too many heritage speakers are victims of toxic sentiments and feel as this student did:

“I always thought my Spanish was bad because I didn’t follow the rules of my high school textbook.”

We never want our students to feel shame. Our family and community ways of speaking are part of our identities and should be sources of pride.

There is abundant evidence that almost no heritage language in the US is still spoken by the third generation. High-quality heritage language instruction might help curb this loss by encouraging heritage speakers to value their ways of speaking and to develop strong levels of proficiency through well-constructed language arts activities.

We can work with students to expand their repertoires by adding new ways of communicating. We can also help them (and ourselves) understand the racism and classism inherent in the ways that these expectations are established, allowing students to make informed decisions about how they wish to use their heritage languages, granting them the possibility to challenge the status quo. Teachers who use a critical language arts approach have a better chance of encouraging these positive developments.


Kim Potowski directed the University of Illinois Chicago’s heritage Spanish program for 20 years and is the founding director of its national summer study abroad program in Oaxaca, Mexico, now in its tenth year. Her advocacy for bilingualism was the focus of her 2013 TEDx talk “No Child Left Monolingual” (

At AATSP Salamanca 2023, Dr. Potowski will be giving a plenary on Tuesday, June 27, and a workshop on Thursday, June 29.

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