Tips for Heritage Learners

When you are learning a language that you can speak but not read or write, or which you only speak at home or in certain contexts, your approach to the learning process will necessarily be different from that of someone who is coming to a language with no prior knowledge.

The following pointers will help you navigate these differences so you can both make use of your prior experience with a language and also be ready to advance your proficiency to a higher level:

Differences Between Your Dialect and the Formal Language

The language you learn to read and write in your course may be somewhat different from your spoken variety. There may be variations in vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation.

  • If you feel that you and your textbook or conversation partner differ in significant ways in terms of vocabulary etc., it doesn’t mean you are wrong, there is probably just a difference between the standard language and your own dialect. Maybe the form you use is non-standard, or in common use in a place different from where your conversation partner and the book’s author are from.
  • Feel free to bring such issues up with your conversation partner or mentor. You should note down such differences and study them. Knowing differences is to your advantage.

Be Careful When Speaking

It is important to practice speaking slowly and thinking through the individual words you speak. Since you have been learning and speaking this language for a long time, you may have many habits of speaking (and sometimes errors) that you have internalized by repetition and don’t even notice.

  • Be ready to practice to remedy habits of pronunciation that may not be wrong, per se, but are not part of the standard version of the language that you are learning in class. You can probably speak quickly and intelligibly, but in a classroom setting it is better to slow down and really try to make a habit out of the new things you are learning in your course. (Also see: Conversation Sessions and Strategies for Conversations)


Try to read as much as you can (Also see: Getting Input).

  • One of the best ways to learn how to talk about more abstract or difficult topics in your language is to immerse yourself in texts about them. These texts will contain specialized vocabulary and sentence structures that you can incorporate into your spoken and written language.
  • If there is a particular topic you are interested in, find books and news articles about it in your language and see if you can read and understand them. If you are not sure of the precise meaning of some of the words, note them down and learn them (See: Flashcards for Vocabulary).
  • You could also note down sentence structures and turns of phrase that you do not use in your own daily speech, and study them as well.