Viewing Heritage Language from an Asset-Based Lens

The following is an excerpt from The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s guide to Aid Transition by Louise Kreuzer-El Yaafouri (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), available HERE or HERE.


Language shapes how we think, and the influx of recent immigrants from hundreds of linguistic backgrounds presents a unique challenge to American schools. (1)

Oral language is very often the centerpiece of cultural cohesiveness, as it makes communication possible. Communication, meanwhile, is the foundation of human interconnectedness. Beyond allowing for the rituals of communal exchange, oral language is the primary platform upon which creative expression and universal sense making are constructed. It tells the story of the beginning, the end, and everything in between. It relates the family tree, defines social norms, solidifies romance, and generates war. Our world is made up of words.

All cultures demonstrate a high degree of oral reliance.(2) In certain regions, the communicative aspects of a culture permeate and sustain every grain of social function. In fact, most non-Western languages are rooted heavily in oral tradition. Many cultures are far more reliant upon verbal output and body language than printed text as a means of communicative exchange. Many of our new-to-English students come from these rich oral-centric backgrounds.

In much of Africa, for example, it is common for an individual to demonstrate agility in multiple local and national tongues, even when literacy abilities are restricted. In communities where legal contracts can be accomplished with a verbal handshake, print concepts may be extraneous to successful daily living. Of course, we understand that literacy is nonnegotiable for our students. Still, it may be helpful to understand the utter potency and significance of oral language in the Newcomer setting.


The ultimate goal of the Newcomer framework is to facilitate English language learning at an accelerated rate, and to prepare students for continued mainstream scholastic and post-school successes. As previously mentioned, one of the best courses of action that we can take in enhancing host language development is to outspokenly value and actively encourage heritage language preservation. While this may seem counterintuitive, research continues to illuminate the benefits of this practice.(3)

The most significant reasons for heritage language preservation have to do with maintaining a coherent self-identity.(4) Moreover, native language acts as a tie that unites families and ethnic communities. When this tie is severed, a sense of belonging is compromised.

A majority of ELLs who are successful in maintaining heritage and host languages also perform better academically than ELLs who are restricted to host language learning at the expense of heritage language.(5) This trend has been documented in standardized testing, as well as in ACTs and SATs. Bilingualism impacts the brain in profound ways, enhancing cognitive function and long-term memory (including the proven delay of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease).(6)

Dual-language skills also enrich problem-solving abilities, promote flexibility and multitasking abilities, and provide for future opportunities with regard to college learning and beyond.(7)

Meanwhile, valuing heritage languages in the classroom encourages tolerance, global awareness, and belonging. Maintaining the host language can also expedite host language acquisition.(8,9) Shawn Loewen writes: “It is important for second language children to feel that their first language and culture are valued and respected. It is particularly important for refugee children . . . to use their first language with other children, their teachers, and at home.”(10)

In the classroom context, we can enable heritage language preservation by allowing our students periods of time where they are encouraged to communicate with linguistically similar students, where applicable, for a short period, and repeating out thoughts in English. We can provide texts representing a variety of cultures and/or languages (see chapter 8 for a multicultural reading list), and we can relay to parents, through a translator when necessary, the importance of maintaining heritage language skills in the home. Through and because of first language fluency, second (or third) language efficacy is more likely to occur.