Heritage Language Learning Overview

Many students of Arabic are non-native speakers and have little-to-no prior personal connection with the language. But for another group of language learners, Arabic is a “heritage” or “home” language. While most Arabic language learning resources are catered to non-native speakers, heritage language learners (HLLs) of Arabic have valuable background knowledge, skills, and interests that extend beyond what textbooks can teach them.

Much of the information below is drawn from the Heritage Arabic eBook (HAeB) by City University of New York’s Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context.

Who is a heritage language learner of Arabic?

A heritage language learner of Arabic is someone who:

  • is raised in a home where Arabic is spoken but lives in a country where Arabic is not a majority language;
  • may speak or merely understand Arabic; and
  • is to some degree bilingual in the language of their country of residence and Arabic.

This definition is based off a commonly accepted description provided by Valdés (2001). In addition to these qualifications, a HLL may also have an affinity with the language through a cultural background, grow up in an Arabic-speaking country but learn a different language in school, or learn the language for religious purposes.

Why do heritage language learners learn Arabic?

Although students may have different or multiple reasons, three of the more frequent reasons why heritage HLLs choose to learn Arabic are:

  • Connecting to one’s roots,
  • Familial or religious ties, and/or
  • A desire to live, work, or travel abroad.

What are challenges that heritage language learners often face?

  1. Perceptions of the majority language as the “proper” language to learn and speak in school, at home, and in community, so heritage language learners do not practice or retain Arabic.
  2. Perceptions of various Arabic dialects as “inferior” to others, depending on their closeness to Modern Standard Arabic by others.
  3. Utility – students who only use Arabic at home may not see reasons they would use Arabic outside of the home or understand the benefits that accompany multilingualism.
  4. Ability to learn Arabic in a classroom setting from the position of already understanding it. Learning Arabic in a classroom setting thus becomes more complicated.

What are teaching tips for Arabic educators with heritage language learners in their classrooms?

1. Focus on strengths rather than gaps in Arabic HLLs’ knowledge.

Because HLLs have some prior exposure to Arabic in addition to the majority language where they live, they generally have more advanced vocabularies and speaking and listening comprehension skills than their non-native peers.

HLLs will also likely have deeper cultural knowledge and experiences that they can share with their peers.

2.  HLLs will likely feel most comfortable with familiar themes; push their Arabic skills further by introducing new topics for discussion and thus expanding their vocabulary.

3.  Most HLLs are familiar with a dialect but not as familiar with MSA. This dialectical knowledge is valuable and beneficial; dialects help students learn MSA due to much shared vocabulary, phonology, and syntax.

Many studies emphasize the importance of HLLs recognizing their knowledge of an Arabic dialect as a resource rather than a problem. See SALaMA’s recent publication “Opportunities and Obstacles for Achieving Language Equity among Adolescents Resettled from the Middle East and North Africa.

4.  Textbooks are often catered toward non-native Arabic speakers, and HLLs often find such content boring, stereotypical, or too easy, even if they do not fully grasp the grammatical concepts. Use authentic resources or allow HLLs to explore and share their own cultural experiences with the class instead.

5.  Be clear as to the goal of learning Arabic for heritage language learners. What will they as an Arabic speaker get out of taking an Arabic class?

In some cases, teachers with many HLLs have opened separate classes just for their students, while other teachers have only a couple HLL students per class. These contexts can also dramatically impact teaching methods and students’ experiences in a classroom.

Teachers, we want to hear from you! Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Let’s keep the conversation going! Share your experiences, tips and resources for teaching heritage language learners at communications@qfi.org

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