Pro/Con: Heritage Speakers in Language Classes


The veins in my arms begin to pop as my face inches closer to the ground. I try to ward off the class uproar, giggly laughing at my feeble attempt to push myself back up. I start to lose count in my head. Has it been 10? 20? I can’t do this anymore. 

The strength in my arms slowly fades, and despite my final push, my arms succumb to fatigue as I collapse helplessly to the ground. Beads of sweat roll down the back of my neck; my hair spikes in every direction, disheveled from my excruciating task. My black hair– once a proud mark of my Asian heritage, now turned a vile shade of scarlet, a mark of my unprecedented lack of proficiency in Chinese. 

Push-ups for each time I spoke English. This is the punishment for being a bad heritage speaker.

To deny heritage speakers the choice to take their native language is to grossly generalize the entire population of second-generation immigrants and assume their ability to be completely fluent. Heritage speakers often possess conversational fluency but lack reading and writing skills due to the prioritization of English literacy in American education systems. This situation creates a gap in their linguistic abilities, preventing them from achieving full fluency in their heritage language. At 4 years old, I focused on learning one language at a time–handling two was too much for me.

Consequently, as heritage speakers age, they find themselves estranged from a part of their cultural identity, unable to fully connect with their heritage due to their limited linguistic skills. This generalization bars second-generation immigrants from the ability to reconnect to their culture and forces them to pursue another language—one with no connected culture or influence to them.

The presence of heritage speakers in the classroom can significantly enhance the learning experience for non-heritage learners. These students often bring natural fluency and a colloquial understanding of the language, which can expose other students to authentic, everyday use of the language. A teacher cannot always replicate this real-world application alone, especially if the teacher is not a native speaker. By interacting with heritage speakers, students gain exposure to native pronunciation, idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms that textbooks or non-native speakers may be unable to convey. 

Moreover, heritage speakers can share cultural insights and nuances that enrich the understanding of the language. Language is deeply intertwined with culture, and learning from someone who has lived experience within that culture adds depth and context to the language learning process. This can include cultural references and traditions that textbooks may not cover. Interaction with heritage speakers encourages other students to use the language more frequently and in a more natural setting. It creates opportunities for spontaneous conversation and practice crucial for language acquisition. This immersion aspect helps build confidence in speaking and understanding the language in a way that traditional classroom settings may not always provide.

While yes, there are those who intentionally flunk placement exams, these same people have also presented themselves as the greatest learning tool in my Chinese classes. Working alongside these people has been critical to my advancement in Chinese. Additionally, the gap between heritage speakers and non-native speakers is addressed in the classroom, where expectations are altered to better even the playing field. Heritage speakers are expected to write more, read more nuanced passages, and engage in class discussions at a higher level than a non-native speaker. Group projects are organized to encourage collaboration between non-native and heritage speakers, creating new opportunities for learning that a classroom banning heritage speakers simply cannot provide. 

Rather than creating a blanket solution that will harm all and benefit none, restructuring language courses to accommodate and value the unique linguistic and cultural skills provides a much better solution to this pressing issue.


If you already knew the curriculum of a math class, would you be allowed to take that class? Of course not. Even if it was good practice. Even if you perhaps forgot a little bit. Even if your handwriting was a little messy. You’re not allowed to take classes on topics you already know, especially when there are opportunities to take classes in which you actually would be learning something. Why should language classes be an exception to this common sense rule?

At Clayton, heritage speakers, or students who speak a language other than English at home, are allowed to take that language in school. Now, there is an important distinction between a heritage speaker who speaks Spanish with their parents and a student who went to a Spanish immersion elementary school. Although both might have  heightened language knowledge, being a heritage speaker means the student has ample opportunities to practice and experience their language outside of the classroom. This privilege is something that other language students simply cannot make up for, regardless of hours spent studying.

One of the main reasons heritage speakers are allowed into language classes is that they cannot read or write. Since language competency includes literacy skills, these students technically aren’t “fluent” in the language. However, even if heritage speakers are illiterate, they still have a huge advantage in language classes. In an immersive environment, comprehension of audial instructions is key to success. Simply understanding what a teacher is asking is the first step to completing assignments or participating in activities. By having a greater vocabulary, as well as more opportunities to practice listening, heritage speakers have no problem understanding in an immersive environment. Even if they cannot read or write, by comprehending directions, they are further along than the rest of the class.

 Additionally, grammatical principles and sentence structures don’t need to be memorized because they are common sense to heritage speakers. On a test, someone who speaks the language doesn’t need to remember if the sentence pattern is location, object, verb or object, verb, location; all they need to do is say it out loud and see which one “sounds right.” Such a skill can only be learned by true fluency in a language. 

These advantages aren’t necessarily terminal to the education of non-heritage speakers, but in classes such as my Mandarin class, heritage speakers dominate the class. The number of students learning Chinese is outnumbered by those who speak it fluently at home. I’m not even at the highest level the school has to offer, yet my class is filled with students far more advanced than I. 

This is because many heritage speakers know that taking a class in the language they speak at home constitutes an easy A. Sometimes, placement tests are purposefully flunked so that students can take an easy, coasting class rather than another language class they would have to study for. Additionally, underclassmen who have the comprehension skills to do reasonably well in the highest level of a language are placed in a lower level so that they have another class to progress to for the following year.

The presence of a large number of heritage speakers changes the expectations of the class and makes the pacing more attuned to students who are already fluent rather than ones who are actually learning the language. Although some adjustments are made to certain speaking assignments, such as having to give longer presentations, written and listening tests are identical. 

Now, some defend heritage speakers in class as a way to preserve their culture and not forget their familial language. While the preservation of culture is vital, the purpose of language learning is also to discover more about cultures different from your own. Since language classes teach cultural traditions in addition to vocabulary, these students miss an opportunity to discover more about other cultures. If a student wishes to uphold their native tongue so as to remain connected to their heritage, these endeavors should be pursued outside of school hours. In school, language instruction should focus on teaching languages and cultures to people who don’t already know them.

In other subjects, the expectations are clear: if you already know the content you don’t take the class. In the math department, students ahead of their year are offered opportunities to take higher level classes at Washington University instead of putting them in easier classes where they already have the skills being taught. If we intend classes to focus on teaching new information to those who wish to learn it, language classes should be no exception.

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JiaLi Deck
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JiaLi Deck is a senior. When she first joined the Globe her sophomore year, she couldn't have ever imagined being Editor in Chief; however, as time went on she realized how passionate she is about writing and designing for the Globe. In the past two years, she has gotten to write stories which have made an difference and design pages of a nationally distributed magazine. She is immensely proud to get to lead of such a fantastic publication and she hopes to continue Globe's important mission in her final year on staff. In addition to Globe, JiaLi participates in Speech & Debate and is a 1st company member of the pre-professional dance division at COCA. She is also a commission graphic artist who designs T-Shirts, logos, and other digital projects.
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Sam Sun is a senior at CHS and a page editor for the Globe. He is on his third year of being on the staff. Throughout his childhood, Sam has always been interested in the news and internet, which drove him to join the Globe. Sam additionally enjoys playing football and basketball.
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