Professor François Grosjean, the Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland is a specialist in bilingualism, multilingualism and heritage language speakers. Last week, he wrote a blog piece, Portraying Heritage Language Speakers: Heritage language speakers are bilinguals with a difference. in Psychology Today about my case as a Russian heritage speaker working in the former Soviet Union.
I learned Russian, my heritage language, because that was the language I grew up with at home but I had very limited formal education in the language. (I came to the United States from Russia as a young child.)
Difference between heritage speakers and native speakers
Heritage speakers have a special place in the range of multilingualism. They are different than native speakers because they often lack the same extensive vocabulary that a native would have. They may make mistakes speaking their heritage language although they may speak it without an accent.
Heritage speakers require a different approach to properly learning the grammar, writing and vocabulary of their “native” heritage tongue.
Heritage language curriculum
I am very glad that the San Francisco School District has Russian heritage language classes for Russian immigrant children or US-born children of Russian speaking parents. This type of specific curriculum makes sense. Otherwise, heritage speakers get bored in a language class that starts from zero that’s meant for people who have no background in the language.
It’s like my Portuguese book, Com licença!: Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish Speakers , which is for Spanish speakers who want to learn Portuguese from a Spanish base. The book is designed for people who can learn the language much quicker than someone with no background in a Romance language.
While promoting multilingualism, teachers and curriculum providers need to take into account the various skills ranges of their students.