In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Heritage Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definitions and Related Concepts
  • Globalization and Commodification
  • Historical Perspectives

Anthropology Heritage Language
Thea Strand, Michael Wroblewski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0184


Heritage languages include the languages of many indigenous populations, as well as those of immigrants and their descendants. Heritage languages are marginalized or subordinated with respect to the dominant or official language(s) of a nation or territory. They are self-consciously oriented to by speakers as elements of a common origin, history, and identity. The study of heritage languages and heritage language speakers is multidisciplinary and largely fragmented, with significant contributions in the fields of anthropology, linguistics, and education. At least since Franz Boas (b. 1858–d. 1942), anthropologists have been concerned with language as a key component of cultural heritage. However, while the term “heritage language” has gained currency in linguistics and education research since the mid-1990s, linguistic anthropologists working on a vast array of heritage-language issues have not yet united around the concept. Anthropological documentation and analysis of language shift, endangerment, and revitalization necessarily addresses heritage languages, which are or have been externally threatened. In situations of language revitalization, reclamation, or self-conscious language maintenance, heritage languages also become emblems of identity and resistance, so that much of the literature on multilingual identities in the vast field of language-and-identity research involves attention to the meanings and functions of heritage languages. More recently, heritage languages have come into focus in studies of language and globalization, where the recruitment and commodification of heritage languages in marketing and touristic development appears to be a significant trend. Though these various threads remain mostly distinct from one another, work on heritage languages in anthropology is ethnographically informed and takes a critical approach that considers language in relation to social, historical, political, and economic contexts.

General Overviews

There are no complete anthropologically oriented overviews on the topic of heritage languages per se. As a more cohesive body of research has emerged in theoretical linguistics, albeit around a much narrower conception of heritage languages (see Definitions and Related Concepts), there are some general resources focused on the formal linguistic dimensions of heritage language acquisition and use, with limited attention to sociocultural dimensions; among these are Benmamoun, et al. 2013 and Polinsky and Kagan 2007. Among more anthropological and context-sensitive resources, Tan 2017 proposes a historically and culturally situated approach to studying heritage languages among immigrant populations, while He 2012 provides a more specific overview of socialization and heritage language use. Kroskrity 2016 is an up-to-date resource that reviews much of the presently relevant research on heritage languages in Native North American communities.

  • Benmamoun, Elabbas, Silvina Montrul, and Maria Polinsky. 2013. Heritage languages and their speakers: Opportunities and challenges for linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 39.3–4: 129–182.

    A particularly thorough review of the study of heritage languages in theoretical and experimental linguistics, emphasizing heritage speaker grammar and incomplete acquisition.

  • He, Agnes Weiyun. 2012. Heritage language socialization. In The handbook of language socialization. Edited by Alessandro Duranti, Elinor Ochs, and Bambi B. Schieffelin, 587–609. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A comprehensive review of research on language socialization and heritage language use, emphasizing ethnographic and discourse analytic approaches.

  • Kroskrity, Paul V. 2016. Some recent trends in the linguistic anthropology of Native North America. Annual Review of Anthropology 45:267–284.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102313-030041

    A broad and up-to-date review article, with sections addressing many heritage language issues in Native North American communities.

  • Polinsky, Maria, and Olga Kagan. 2007. Heritage languages: In the “wild” and in the classroom. Language and Linguistics Compass 1.5: 368–395.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00022.x

    An overview of heritage speakers, here defined in terms of incomplete acquisition of a home language, with a focus on general linguistic characteristics and adult fluency.

  • Tan, E. K. 2017. A rhizomatic account of heritage language. In The Routledge handbook of migration and language. Edited by Suresh Canagarajah, 468–485. New York: Routledge.

    A proposal for a more historically, culturally, and ideologically situated approach to immigrant heritage languages, using Chinese migration and diaspora as a case study.

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