The Beautiful Challenge of Heritage Language Learning

Ana Leyva
5 min readMar 17, 2022


“The only people encouraged to learn a second language in the U.S. are white monolinguals.” -unknown

This controversial statement reflects the double standard many have faced related to language learning. While children of immigrants are encouraged to assimilate (leave the heritage language behind and cling to English-only) their white monolingual counterparts are encouraged to become bilingual. This double standard is heartbreaking and makes heritage language learning and maintenance very different from second language learning.

This week I had someone ask me about the purpose of language learning — is it to teach the language or to transmit the culture? This struck me as a key difference between second language learning and heritage language learning– for the latter, transmission of culture is a big driving force. And thus, perhaps this is why heritage language learners don’t get the same encouragement as second language learners; perhaps it’s the transmission or persistence of a “foreign” culture that mainstream American culture has been so resistant to all along.

In Speaking Spanish Like a Boy Scout: Language Socialization, Resistance, and Reproduction in a Heritage Language Scout Troop by Martin Guardado, the author looks at the particular challenges of heritage language learning in Canada. Guardado wrestles with the following questions: what is the why motivating parents of heritage language learners? Are their actions aligned with that why? I was struck that the article opens with a statement about Canada being the only country in the world with an official policy of embracing multilingualism and claiming official and societal support for the maintenance of heritage languages and cultures. (pg 102) I was disheartened, but not surprised to learn, that implementing this policy in practice has proven challenging for Canada. It’s not enough to have a policy — societies still need to implement and become places that support multilingualism. And a lot of that implementation work has to begin in the home.

A big theme in the article by Guardado is parent intentions, actions and children’s receptivity to parental efforts. Guardado argues that, “people’s attitudes and intentions are often at odds with their actions. Furthermore, as Jaffe’s (1999) pioneering work on Corsica has powerfully demonstrated, people’s language practices can unwittingly reproduce the very dominant language ideologies they are designed to challenge.” (pg 122) In other words, supporting and promoting a heritage language in a context like Canada’s is extremely complicated. What parents intend to do may get muddled. It’s hard to do what you say you want to do and harder still to control how receptive your child is to your efforts. I was particularly struck by his example of a 10 year study in a Ukranian-speaking community in Toronto:

“A 10-year longitudinal study with Ukrainian-speaking families in Toronto (Chumak-Horbatsch, 1999) found that most children viewed themselves as English-dominant and expressed ambivalence about Ukrainian despite having been isolated from English in their preschool years, having attended a Ukrainian-only nursery school, and, later, a Ukrainian secondary school. Although the reasons are unclear, the children may have resented the imposition of Ukrainian and their isolation from their English-speaking peers, and rejected their L1 as a resistance mechanism.” (pg 104)

In this example, the very effort that parents exercised towards heritage language maintenance backfired on them and, in the long run, the kids rejected their L1. The efforts of the parents were apparently fruitless. This is an alarming example, but I do feel a glimmer of hope that perhaps those parents’ efforts bore fruit further down the line for their children.

Guardado’s discussion of language ideologies as “the values and beliefs that individuals and communities espouse about the worth of their languages and about how these languages should be used in their social lives” (pg 103) and the discussion of how these ideologies are lived out seems critical to successful adoption of the heritage language among kids. In other words, what are the ideas about the L1 that the parent is unintentionally communicating to the young language learner and what impact does that have to their expressed intentions? How can American families live out language ideologies that support their expressed intentions and their efforts instead of detracting from them? In other words, how do we close the “gap between explicit discourses about language use and actual socialization practices”(pg 105)? It is possible to do this successfully, but it seems we have to identify and help other families identify how to achieve a “high level of L1 maintenance in their children through the language input of only one parent and limited contact with the Spanish L1 community.” (pg 105) even when, as in this last quote, they don’t “meet the necessary conditions to embark on such an undertaking.” (pg 106)

There are many societal factors that influence bilingualism that are out of a parent’s control. But I firmly believe there is a lot parents can do to encourage heritage language maintenance. In many ways, Guardado’s argument is that the Heritage Language must be elevated to a position of prominence– the language should be seen as cool and desirable, and parents have to model this. There may be different ways to achieve this kid to kid, but here are some overall tips:

Make it desirable

This is one of the things we pride ourselves in at Lelu. One mom told us “with Lelu, this is the first time Spanish feels authentic to my children. It’s Spanish for them, welcoming, accessible, on their terms and about their interests.” You have to provide opportunities to engage in the language in fun, intriguing ways. That’s what we do at Lelu, but there are tons of other ways to do this: If your kids are really into video games, switch the system language to Spanish. When you’re watching movies, watch in Spanish. Listen to audiobooks in Spanish. Have fun in Spanish! If it’s not fun, it won’t be desirable. If it’s not desirable, it won’t be cherished. If it’s not cherished, it won’t be important enough to hang on to.

Where possible, adults should speak the target language

We must model what we want to see in our kids. If I want my kids to speak Spanish to each other, I have to be willing to speak to my brothers, husband, friends in Spanish even if English “feels more natural” for those relationships. Kids will often see the language their parents speak as a “privileged language” and so it’s especially important for parents to make an effort to communicate and elevate the heritage language in their communications.

Encourage bilingualism, not reverse monolingualism

One thing we can learn from the example above in the Ukrainian community is that if children feel that the dominant language is put at odds with the target language they may just outright resent the target language. So, be careful to not encourage minority-language-monolingualism. Make the goal bilingualism. Celebrate all things bilingual! Encourage and support your children’s development in both languages. Don’t make the dominant language the enemy– embrace it and encourage your kids to as well!

Ultimately, the best advice I can give to any parent is be who you want your child to be! Model it for them! Parents of heritage language learners have the enormous privilege of getting to show your children how thriving bilingualism is done at its best. Walk the walk. Talk the talk! We’re in this together.



Ana Leyva

Founder and CEO of Lelu ( Writes about all things bilingualism. Mom of two, wife, first-gen grad of Princeton, Stanford GSB and GSE. @lelu_usa