Imagine you’re an immigrant in the U.S. who wants your children to assimilate and be accepted. They speak a heritage language at home and the majority language at school.
Should you stop speaking Spanish at home, for example, to help them learn English more easily?
Missouri State University’s Dr. Luciane Maimone says no.
“Being an immigrant myself, I can relate to the powerful connection between language, culture and one’s sense of self,” Maimone, assistant professor of modern and classical languages, said. “Maintaining children’s home languages is key to their identities and for their social and academic development.”
Learning two languages at the same time is possible. While the learning process for bilinguals is different, children who succeed in preserving their home language can also fully acquire English.
In the language classroom, Spanish heritage speakers face unique challenges. Unlike typical foreign language learners, they may start with higher levels of communicative competence. However, they may lack knowledge of writing conventions, formal language, and specialized vocabulary and terminology. This can result in low self-confidence, feelings of inadequacy or cause them to get lower grades.
For example, Maimone said, think about your own childhood.
“How often did your mother ask you as a child to write something for her?” she said. “You don’t have as many opportunities to write at home as you have to speak. Developing writing and reading skills requires training more often provided outside the home.”
The biggest challenge, however, might be to help heritage speakers see value in their linguistic experience and motivate them to build proficiency in their heritage language.
A possible solution? Maimone suggests starting programs for heritage speakers at secondary and postsecondary levels. This could help more heritage speakers in the state of Missouri achieve academic and professional success and become more confident in pursuing a college education.