The term “heritage language” refers to a language that was acquired first, but was not completely learned because the child switched to another language that was dominant in the community and in the educational system. The younger the heritage learners are when they arrive in the United States, the less likely they are to use their heritage language and the more likely they are to use English. The Heritage Language Survey showed a dramatic decline in the use of the heritage language after entrance into the U.S. school system.
The use of heritage languages typically dies out within two or three generations. By adolescence most immigrant youths exhibit language deficits compared to their monolingual peers. They usually do not develop the ability to read and write in the heritage language or to speak it in formal situations. For instance, the Heritage Language Survey showed that only 12.2% of respondents rated their reading skills and only 7.5% rated their writing skills in the heritage language as native-like. Nevertheless, heritage learners still have a head start on individuals who have to learn the language from scratch, particularly with regard to listening comprehension, pronunciation, and speaking skills.
The National Heritage Language Resource Center is conducting the Heritage Language Survey of students enrolled in heritage language classes (Carreira & Kagan, 2011). Based on some 1,700 responses obtained mostly in California in 2007-2009, 22 heritage languages were identified thus far. Of them, the most common were the following: Spanish (23.1%), Mandarin (15.7%), Russian (12.7%), Cantonese (10.2%), Korean (7.8%), Vietnamese (6.6%), Tagalog (6.5%), Armenian (3.4%), Arabic (1.6%), Hindi/Urdu (1.4%), Japanese (1.1%). These languages parallel closely the list of the ten most commonly spoken languages other than English in the U.S.
The Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages consists of individuals and organizations invested in language development for heritage language speakers in the U.S. The goal of the Alliance is to foster the advancement of the heritage language resources as part of an effort to educate citizens who can function professionally in English and other languages. The National Heritage Language Resource Center offers workshops for teachers of heritage languages, develops language-specific learning materials for heritage learners, and conducts research on the teaching and learning of heritage languages. The Heritage Language Journal provides a forum for scholars to publish the results of their research and to share knowledge about educating heritage learners. The Internet provides valuable resources such as the First Voices Archives for indigenous languages of Canada.