Identity: The Driving Force behind Heritage Language Learning

Maria Carreira (UCLA & CSULB) and Claire Chik (UCLA)

What drives heritage language speakers to study their home language? A study based on a survey of college heritage language learners (HLLs) by the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC)’s Maria Carreira and Olga Kagan (2009) identifies three main reasons. In order of importance, these learners study their heritage language (HL) (1) to understand themselves through their cultural and linguistic heritage, (2) to communicate with family and friends in the U.S., and (3) to fulfill a language requirement.

The first two reasons bring to mind Nancy Hornberger and Shuhan Wang’s (2008) definition of HLLs as individuals who “have familial or ancestral ties to a particular language and who exert their agency in determining whether or not they are HLLs of that HL and HC [heritage culture]” (p. 27).

This definition reminds us of the centrality of affective issues – particularly those surrounding identity, belonging, and connections to the HL and HC – in HL learning. Indeed, according to Agnes He (2006), identity is “the centerpiece rather than the background of HL development” (p. 7).

A comment by a survey respondent from Carreira and Kagan’s (2009) study further elucidates this point:

In high school I was one of very few Latinos. My friend and I were called the “Mexican kids”. This was always funny to me because my Dad’s family always told me I was American. In school I was labeled Mexican, but to the Mexicans, I am an American. I am part of each, but not fully accepted by either. In high school, I was considered Mexican because I spoke Spanish but I was considered “Pocho” by my Dad’s family because my Spanish was not up to their standard. It’s this weird duality in which you are stuck in the middle. Latinos are often told that they are not Americans but also that they are not connected to their heritage. You take pride in both cultures and learn to deal with the rejection. You may never be fully embraced by either side. That’s why you seek out other people like yourself. Socializing with people who share a common experience helps you deal with this experience (p. 51).

This insightful comment offers a vision of the HL classroom as a place for developing essential skills that fulfil the promise of bilingualism and biculturalism, as well as meeting the accompanying challenges. Interactions with other HLLs emerge as a particularly important tool for dealing with this process (see Phinney et al, 2001; García-Bedolla, 2003), and the HL classroom provides a venue for such interactions.

Interactions with family and community members are also important, given HLLs’ second reason for studying their HL. Another comment from the survey speaks to this point:

Knowledge of my heritage language has helped me outside of school in that I’ve been able to communicate and connect with my family and the greater Ethiopian community…Knowledge of my heritage language has also helped me at church in that I have been able to understand parts of and follow along in the sermons (which are partly held in Amharic). Perhaps the most important thing to note about knowing my heritage language is that it has allowed me to communicate with my family (especially because many older relatives, like my grandmothers, speak very little to no English at all).

These and other comments also speak to the different dimensions of an individual’s identity. Block (2007) identifies seven such dimensions: (1) Ethnic identity, which includes shared history, beliefs, religious practices, etc.; (2) Racial identity, based on racial phenotypes; (3) National identity, which is associated with the nation-state; (4) Migrant identity, relating to ways of living in a new country; (5) Gender identity, which speaks to socially constructed notions of femininity and masculinity; (6) Social class identity, which includes income level, occupation, and education; and (7) Language identity, encompassing the relationship between communication and sense of self. As explained in the next section, these categories provide a useful framework for HL curriculum design.

Implications for teaching

Definitions of HLLs such as Hornberger and Wang’s (2008), which focus on affiliation and identity, contrast with so-called narrow definitions of HLLs, which hinge on linguistic knowledge. Speaking to the latter type of definition, Guadalupe Valdés (2001) notes:

Foreign language educators use the term to refer to a language student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or at least understands the language, and who is to some degree bilingual in that language and in English (p. 38).

Together, these definitions lay out two orientations for HL teaching, one involving issues of language, and the other issues of affect such as finding identity, belonging, and dealing with rejection. The discussion that follows looks at issues of affect alone. Language issues and issues at the intersection of both language and affect will be taken up in future newsletters.

Three strategies prove helpful for addressing issues of affect.

(1) Selecting engaging and meaningful materials

Materials (readings, movies, songs, art, etc.) relating to issues of language and culture and those that discuss the immigrant experience of the HL group are ideally suited for HL learners. Prime examples of such materials include the movie “Bend it Like Beckham,” which explores the clash of British and Indian cultures surrounding gender roles, and the short story “My Name” by Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros (1984), where a young narrator discusses the difficulties of having a Spanish first name in an English-speaking school and compares herself to her grandmother, after whom she was named. This story and follow-up activities (for use in English language arts classes) are widely available online, including at, and can easily be adapted for HL teaching.

The magic of these materials resides in the fact that that they lend themselves to addressing the issues in Hornberger and Wang’s definition, as well as those in the featured student comments and Block’s (2007) dimensions of identity. In keeping with this view, activities for a movie like “Bend it Like Beckham” may involve role- playing parents and children negotiating a compromise to the central problem of the story. Alternatively, students could interview their own parents and other adults as to their views on the matter and prepare a short report for the class.

With “My Name,” students can make a presentation or write a short piece about their own name, following Cisneros’ model. They can also survey family members and other HL speakers to understand the naming practices of the HL community in the US. Such practices can be compared to the traditional naming practices from the HL country.

Because “My Name” touches upon the grandmother’s marriage, it also lends itself to discussing beliefs and practices surrounding marriage and, more generally, gender identity in the US and in the HL country. With these kinds of discussions there is the danger that one culture will be idealized at the expense of the other. As such, it is important for teachers to challenge simplistic characterizations. A good activity is to ask students to examine their own views and expectations for marriage and male-female relations as a product of their biculturalism.

Other themes that lend themselves well to use with HL learners include:

  • Notions of wellbeing, health, and disease
  • Relationship to animals, particularly pets
  • Relationship to nature
  • Death and mourning
  • Expressions of politeness, affection, and civility
  • Practices of childhood, such as birthday parties, sleepovers, family get-togethers
  • Respect and honor, as applied to both the individual and family unit
  • Gift giving

(For examples of materials that could be exploited to discuss topics in this list, see “Activities Materials” on the NHLRC website)

(2) Adapting existing materials

What about teachers who have a fixed curriculum and pre-selected materials and do not have the option of selecting their own materials? In this case, it is important to adapt existing materials to meet the needs of HL learners. Different materials call for different fixes.

(a) Materials written for native speakers: Some materials have appealing themes but lack an explicit connection to the affective issues that matter most to HL learners. This is a common problem with materials written for native speakers living in the country in which the HL is spoken (as opposed to HL speakers living in the US). The trick with such materials is to weave the missing issues into the follow-up activities.

An Armenian story with some similarities to “My Name” serves by way of example. The story features Nvart, a girl who doesn’t like her name but after considering its historical roots and learning that it was the name of her grandmother, she begins to like it. Follow-up activities in an HL class might include discussing the relationship between names and ethnic identity, debating the pros and cons of having an ethnic name in the US, asking students to rate their own name in terms of how well it reflects who they are, or asking them to complete a prompt like: If I could rename myself, I would choose the name (insert name) because...

(b) Materials written for foreign language learners: Readings on the geography, history, and demographics of the target culture – a staple of foreign language textbooks – present their own challenge. Though they relate directly to the target culture, they tend to be presented from an “outsiders’ perspective” and lack the kind of emotional hooks associated with the earlier examples of “Bend it Like Beckham” or “My Name.” The trick with these kinds of readings is to tap into HL learners’ cultural resources to enrich the presentation of the material and contribute to a deeper understanding of ethnic and national identity. Two complimentary prompts can form the basis for activities that further this objective. Students can complete these prompts themselves or ask family members and other adults from the HL community to complete them:

(i) One thing that few people in the US know about the (geography, history, traditions, people) of my heritage country is...,

(ii) One thing that few people in my heritage country know about the (geography, history, tradition, people) of the US is...

The answers gathered can be presented in a poster at a “mini-conference” on the country of origin or they can be posted in the classroom or in the school hallway for others to read. The insights gained through this process can also prompt insightful discussions about stereotypes.

(c) Miscellaneous materials: Some materials with little or no apparent connection to HL learning actually have hidden HL themes. The trick with these materials is to learn to spot and bring out such themes. Using “Little Red Riding Hood” by way of example, the fact that the grandmother lives on her own, far away from her family, lends itself to discussing the treatment of elderly relatives and notions about family structures in the HL culture. Another hidden HL theme in this story concerns the supervision of children. Many cultures may frown upon children traveling on their own (especially across a forest) to visit a relative, while others cultures may consider it part of learning to become an independent and self-sufficient adult.

These differences can form the basis for activities that involve comparing the perspectives and practices of the HL country (or countries) to those of the US, thereby addressing migrant identity. Taking a humorous approach, students may write or represent the frustrations of a wolf from a heritage country where multi-generational living arrangements are the norm, because he can never get any time alone with the child or the grandmother. In the same vein, they can compare the picnic basket that a Little Red Riding Hood from the HL culture would take to her grandmother to the one taken by an American Little Red Riding Hood.

(3) Encourage learners to make their own personal connections

HL learners bring a range of experiences and perspectives to the language classroom. This means that for any given lesson, they will connect to the material in a variety of different ways. This poses obvious challenges for teachers, who may find it difficult to anticipate these different connections, let alone respond to all of them.

The text-to-self connection helps teachers meet this challenge by opening a window into the minds of learners: what they find interesting, puzzling, meaningful, etc. This information can inform teaching, class activities and discussions, syllabus design, materials selection, etc. For learners, the text-to-self connection is a tool for personalizing the material and for interacting with a text at a deeper level.

Three different examples of text-to-self connections are given below.

  1. Copy a sentence from the text that caught your attention.
    Explain the personal relevance of this sentence to you.
  2. Identify a theme from the text that you would like to study or discuss in greater depth.
    Explain why this is of interest to you.
  3. Describe a reaction by the writer or a character that you find puzzling or intriguing.
    Explain why this is the case and describe how you would react in such a situation.
Taking learners as they are

When designing an HL curriculum it is important to keep in mind that ethnic identity evolves over time. Tse (1998) proposes a four-stage model of ethnic identity development in HL learners. Stage One is characterized by unawareness of ethnic identity. At Stage Two, there is ambivalence or evasion of the home culture. Stage Three, ethnic emergence, is characterized by identity exploration and, in some cases, shunning of the dominant culture. Finally, at Stage Four there is identity incorporation, which involves the embracing of a bi-cultural identity.

A curriculum that is fine-tuned to students’ stage of acculturation seems logical, although there is no research on this topic. Clearly, a curriculum for a high school classroom and one for a college course will be different, given that by the time students get to college many have moved beyond the stage of rejection and toward that of acceptance of the HL. There is also bound to be individual variation within any age group, since not all learners move through these stages in lockstep, as well as individual variation stemming from personality factors. The two Latino college students cited below serve by way of illustration. Enrolled in the same Spanish HL class and with very similar backgrounds, they offered very different answers to this question: How can schools better serve the needs of Spanish speakers?

Student 1: Schools should value the home culture more and bring into the classroom. But they don’t do that. And so immigrant children have to compartmentalize their lives to blend in among other students. They end up pushing aside their home life and language while in school. It’s difficult to feel confident and connect with the school when that happens... There is a gap between the home and the school, but there should be bridges.

Student 2: People ask me how I feel as a Latino about this or that issue. But why should it matter where I come from? Why do I have to be viewed through the lens of my ethnicity? I am an American. I was born here, raised here, and educated here. I love this country. I don’t know how other people feel about that, but I know how I feel and what I am.

In light of this, teachers need to put effort into understanding their students. Questionnaires which probe issues of identity and perceptions of the target and dominant cultures can help with this. The NHLRC’s website offers three questionnairesthat can be adapted for this purpose: Julio Torres’ questionnaire and both of Elke Stracke’s.


HL students arrive in language classrooms with affective issues that are often central to their sense of who they are and how they fit into the surrounding society. Issues that pertain to finding identity at the intersection of two cultures and languages, dealing with rejection from both of their worlds, and meshing these two worlds as they develop a sense of who they are, need to be central in guiding class materials and activities.

References & Further Reading
  • Block, D. (2007). Second language identities. London, UK: Continuum
  • Carreira, M., & Kagan, O. (2009). The heritage language learner survey: Report on the preliminary results.
  • Cisneros, S. (1984). The house on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books.
  • García Bedolla, L. 2003. The Identity Paradox: Latino Language, Politics, and Selective Dissociation. Latino Studies, 1(2), 264-283.
  • He, A. (2006). “Toward an identity theory of the development of Chinese as a heritage language.” Heritage Language Journal, 4(1).
  • Hornberger, N. H., & Wang, S. C. (2008). Who are our heritage language learners? Identity and biliteracy in heritage language education in the United States. In D. Brinton, O. Kagan, & S. Bauckus (Eds.), Heritage language acquisition: A new field emerging (pp. 3-35). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Phinney, J. S., Romero, I., Nava, M., & Huang, D. (2001). The role of language, parents, and peers in ethnic identity among adolescents in immigrant families. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30(2), 135-153.
  • Tse, L. (1998). Ethnic identity formation and its implications for heritage language development. In S. D. Krashen, L. Tse, & J. McQuillan (Eds.), Heritage language development (pp. 15-29). Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates.
  • Valdés, G. (2001). Heritage language students: Profiles and possibilities. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 37-77). McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics.
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Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014