What is a Heritage Language and How can I Improve?

"The wealth of studies conducted in the past few years suggest that most heritage speakers who exhibit non-native mastery of several aspects of their grammar are able to communicate at basic levels and tend to have low to intermediate proficiency in the heritage language (Carreira and Kagan 2011 )."

From "The acquisition of Heritage Languages", 2016.

What is a Heritage Language?

A Heritage Language is a minority language that you learnt when you were younger, but might not have obtained mastery of because of the linguistic environment. Note that it is possible to command mastery that is very close to your first language (e.g. English in Singapore)

Based on my understanding of Dr Montrul’s work, in Singapore, the official languages of Chinese, Malay, and Tamil are heritage languages.

Heritage language speakers are bilinguals who normally do not completely develop their language. They share traits with children who are learning the heritage language and are thus native speakers… but they also share traits with second language learners.

How do I get started on learning my Heritage Language?

First, know that there’s different ways of using language

For now, I’m going to assume that you are receptively bilingual, meaning that you can understand heritage language. If you can’t understand the heritage language, it’s unlikely that you can speak or write it either, meaning that you’re like a second language learner with a heritage connection. Take note that this cultural connection still defines you as a heritage language learner because of the cultural connection; it is likely you understand how to navigate social situations in your culture (what is called ‘pragmatics’).

For now, it’s important to note that language use lies across a spectrum. For our purposes, it’s good to understand 3 levels of language use:

  1. Heritage language used at home
  2. Heritage language used in the community, e.g. buying food or asking for directions, or listening and watching informal videos
  3. Heritage language used in formal settings, e.g. debating ideas, writing an essay, or writing a scientific article for publication

These different language uses are different registers of the language. They range from the informal use of the language to the formal use of the language.

It’s easy to think that your language use is ‘wrong’, that it’s not ‘acceptable’. I used to think that way about my Chinese, but I realised that just like there’s a Singaporean version of Chinese, the heritage language I use at home could be considered a dialect of Singaporean Chinese. Of course, the dialect at home might not be understandable to a person from China.

This leads to our second talking point.

Second, remember that there are different goals for language learning

For example, I might not ever write a scientific article for publication in Chinese, but I do want to debate ideas. But being able to debate ideas won’t get me far in a restaurant, or help me write down a grocery list of items to buy. Yet, even being able to buy food in a restaurant might not help me in Singapore if I learn the phrases that’s used in China.

So think about why you want to use the language. Do you want to learn Chinese to work in China? To just get around in, say, Singapore and watch Singaporean TV shows (which Malaysians still watch!)?

Whatever way you choose, it’s good to think of heritage language learning not as a correction, but as an expansion of your language skills.

What kind of practice can I do to work on my Heritage language?

I have split this section up into 4 parts, listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

A theme common to all 4 language skills is the use of ‘top-down processing’ and ‘bottom-up processing’. Top-down processing makes use of your previous knowledge to interpret text and write passages. Bottom-up processing uses information from the text or conversation itself to parse what is being said or what to write.

It’s likely that you come into learning a heritage language, or any second-language, with top-down skills in several areas, such as knowing that you have to ask for the cheque after eating at a restaurant. However, you may not be able to recall what to say to ask for the cheque and gesture and speak in English. Knowing the common words and technical vocabulary used in a specific situation is bottom-up processing.


  1. The largest gain if you already have top-down skills in the task you want to navigate is probably in increasing the number of words you recognise. An example of increasing word recognition is in reviewing essential vocabulary. If you don’t have top-down skills in the task you want to navigate, learning to listen for overall meaning will be useful. Find, or come up with, pre-listening questions that will guide your comprehension.
  2. You will likely have a relatively large amount of vocabulary in informal settings, such as talking to family, or buying groceries, compared to someone coming into the language totally new. This advantage might also disappear with formal tasks like debating ideas. You can strengthen your formal vocabulary through a mix of reading and listening activities.
  3. Learn the language’s commonly used metaphors. Metaphors in English include thinking of the mind as the software component of a computer, or thinking of the body as a collection of pipes and gears. Metaphorical language is also linked to the idea of collocations. Collocations are words that are consistently used together. Look up collocations in the target language if possible, and catch yourself whenever you try to import collocations from English into your target language.
  4. For formal language in particular, you can watch a debate in a language and take note of how the debaters ‘signpost’. Signposting refers to phrases that indicate to the listener what the speaker is about to do. E.g. a disagreement could start with “You make a good point but” in English. Listen to these phrases, note them down, then ask whether they’re commonly used in your region.



  • Fluency refers to how well you can demonstrate your command of the language. Speaking speed is an example of fluency. Before practice and skill training, you are generally at a slower speed.
  • Accuracy refers to how ‘correctly’ you can use the language, or how much your language use devaites from the norm.
  • Pragmatics refers to how well you can interpret the language beyond its surface level use. e.g. “Suuuure he’s doing well” in English, which sounds closer to sarcasm than its surface meaning of “yes, he is doing well indeed”.
  1. To improve fluency, you can find prefabricated chunks of language, lexicalised pauses, and filler expressions.
  2. To develop accuracy, exposure to grammatical structures and comparing what you’ve said to a ‘correct’ version will allow you to see where you made the mistake. If you’re at a more advanced level, then working on pragmatics could be helpful.
  3. To speak more complicated sentences, you can work on grammatically complex sentences in writing, which could transfer to speaking.
  4. While our culture in Southeast Asia gives us the appropriate pragmatics in most informal situations, our ability to use pragmatics in more advanced ways may not be as developed. Activities could include analysing how different countries use language. E.g. for Mandarin, you could watch videos of how food is ordered in both China and Singapore and compare how different it is.

A common theme in learning to speak is analysing the language use in language data, such as videos or scripted dialogues or blogs. Instead of being satisfied with grasping the general meaning of the passage spoken/written, analyse how the language is used and try to incorporate that into your own language use.


  1. Assuming that your heritage language is in a different script, then working on bottom-up processing will help you with reading speed. Bottom-up processing includes recalling the [[Tamil]] script without other references, or understanding how [[Mandarin]] characters are put together. For logographic scripts like Chinese, there’s 4 stages of subcharacter units:
    • Positions and combinations, knowing where parts can be put in a character and knowing which parts are allowed to come together
    • Semantic function, which refers to knowing which parts provide the meaning)
    • phonological function, which refers to knowing which parts provide the sound
    • limitations of the functions, knowing when the semantic and phonological functions cannot be used
  2. Listening to recordings of readings while reading along allows for written character recognition. Feel free to use Latin/English script to write vocabulary you just learnt!
  3. There are 3 types of top-down processing which is helpful in reading. First, there’s having a “linguistic schemata”, where you know your grammar and vocabulary. The second is a “Formal schemata”, knowing how texts and rhetoric are organised based on their own genres. An example of a formal schemata is the writing structure of an essay that you were taught in school. Finally, there’s “background knowledge schemata”, which refers to how your knowledge of, say, history lets you understand texts about history better.
  4. Learn how to infer word meanings. This includes logographic script like Chinese.


One book that’s really useful for teachers is “Heritage Langauge Teaching: Research and Practice”, by Sara Beaudrie, Cynthia Ducar, and Kim potowski. While this book is aimed towards teachers, I think some of its findings can be adapted for the conscious heritage language learner. This is the main source from which I’ve written this text.

Another person to look out for is Dr Silvina Montrul. She has done a large amount of work focusing on Heritage learners, accumulating in the book “The acquisition of Heritage Languages” in 2016, from which I draw the quote at the top of the page, and has edited “The Cambridge Handbook of Heritage Languages and Linguistics” in August 2021.