Are Your Students Native Speakers or Heritage Speakers?

heritage speaker students

How do you know if a student is a native speaker or a heritage speaker? Does the difference between the two terms really matter? If so, why? Due to my recent post about fostering a growth mindset in heritage speaking students, I fielded some great questions about these two terms and how to define the differences between them. 

Often times these two terms are lumped together and used interchangeably, and therefore incorrectly. There are even many schools who mistakenly call their class offering for Spanish speakers: Spanish for natives. It can be confusing, what with all the grey area between the two groups (heritage & native speakers), but the terms do have their own distinct meanings. Understanding the differences will help us as educators to meet our students where they’re at. Doing this will effectively change our approach to furthering their language acquisition and challenge them towards growth in their individual language journey. 

Important distinction: “Heritage Speaker” and “Native Speaker” are not labels that limit what one student is capable of, nor do the labels speak to one student’s intelligence over another’s. What the labels do is effectively define the different starting points, and showcase for the teacher which areas a particular student will need tutelage, in order to grow them as communicators in the target language.

Essentially, they are just different terms to define different linguistic backgrounds. It is the educational situation being defined, not the human within the situation. One term is not necessarily better or worse than the other, they are just different.

Heritage Speakers

Heritage speakers are individuals who have learned a language from their family. This language learned at home differs from the primary language spoken in the country/society in which they have lived most of their lives (see Stephen Krashen’s definition of this). Additionally, a heritage speaker has received most, if not all, of their educational instruction in a different language than they hear at home. 

So since the label defines a situation, let’s use a situation to clarify things. 

A hypothetical student has grown up in the United States. English is spoken in popular TV shows, movies and pop culture. Schools teach in the English language therefore the student has received instruction and coaching in English since they began their studies. Suffice to say, the student is very confident in English (whether written, read, or spoken). They experience the language daily and interact with the English language while living out the bulk majority of their life.

But, at home, this student’s family speaks Spanish. As a result of this, they interact with the Spanish language frequently, but mostly in an auditory/spoken capacity. The language they speak with family is not the dominant language used in the society in which they live. In that, they have high exposure, but in a particular context. Since they lack exposure to academic dialects of their heritage language, heritage speakers tend to have a greater oral fluency than they have literacy in reading and writing. More often than not, their perfect pronunciation and knowledge of regional dialect terms can cause educators to misplace them into a class that is not at their level for literacy in Spanish.

To go more in-depth in understanding your heritage language learners, take a look at this publication from Harvard University. This article contends that heritage speakers differ from native speakers and does a fantastic job of explaining why.

“…we cannot consider heritage language speakers to be native speakers (Polinsky p. 14).”

Native Speakers

Native speakers have learned a language from their family. This language is also the primary language of the country in which they live or have lived in for the majority of their life. Work, school, and activities such as music, sports or religion will likely all be conducted in the dominant language.

A high school student who has just moved to the United States from a Spanish speaking country is a native speaker of Spanish. They have learned Spanish from both family and the society in which they live/lived in. Theoretically, they will have better literacy skills than a heritage speaker due to their educational experiences being imparted in Spanish. Of course, there are instances in which native speakers have lacked access to education in their home country, in which case their literacy skills will be behind grade-level expectations for a native speaker. 

L2 (Second Language Learners)

Anyone who is learning a language as a second language and has not had much exposure to it in the familial context is an L2 learner. Nearly all exposure to the target language will be in an educational capacity, whether formally in a school, or informally through an online course. 

In short, both the society they live in and the family they come from speak their mother tongue. They learn the target language on their own, and not from family members.

It’s a Continuum

These terms are part of a continuum as so many people are at different levels within them. Specifics of where someone falls on the continuum is not always so clear cut as there are many unique circumstances that dictate where people fall within these definitions. While there are exceptions to every rule, the rule here happens to be very helpful for understanding and initially assessing a student’s ability. Dr. Kim Potowski, from the University of Illinois-Chicago uses this guiding document to explain these terms to her students. In the document, she addresses that these terms can be very difficult to navigate because there are mainstream understandings and there are attempts at definitions that come from language science (aka linguistics).

There are all sorts of unique situations that can make identifying someone’s linguistic level very difficult. For example, my son will hopefully someday fall in between being a heritage speaker and an L2 learner because while I do speak to him partially in Spanish at home, it is not my first language. He will never be a native speaker of Spanish and he won’t be a heritage speaker either as my husband doesn’t speak Spanish proficiently and Spanish is not my native tongue. I will be his only source of input until he perhaps attends Spanish immersion school. 

Additionally, he will have much more exposure to English, based primarily in the fact that it is the dominant language in the community in which we live. My hope is that he will be more advanced than a typical L2 learner due to the input I provide for him at home and the educational experiences I expose him to, but he won’t be a heritage learner. He will fall somewhere between heritage learner and L2 learner on the continuum. 

Differing Language Levels

So, if native speakers and heritage speakers are different, should they be in the same class together? In a world in which schools had infinite funding and could offer differentiation, probably not. But let’s talk terms based in reality: schools have limited funds and teachers have to summon their inner Harry Potter to move all their students forward as it is.

Again, if native speakers and heritage speakers are different, should they be in the same class together? Well, that depends on the course offerings at your school. In the U.S. education system, it’s a heroic feat to achieve heritage speaker course offerings at all, so I doubt your school offers a course suited only for native Spanish speakers (students new to country). We, the modern-day teacher, are the best in the business at making the best of less than stellar situations, and as is usually the case, we make do!

In a best-case scenario, perhaps your school may offer different levels for heritage speaker courses. For student placement, I highly recommend assessing the language level of all students (even native speakers) because as I mentioned earlier, some have lacked access to education. To make this easy, you can get my digital comprehension assessment in my freebie folder that all my subscribers have access to.

Personally, I don’t think a heritage Spanish class is a bad place for a native speaker. Bear in mind, English speakers take English classes all the way through to graduation. All English speakers are not of the same level, and study alongside each other. So personally, I thoroughly enjoy having a healthy mix of heritage and native speakers in my heritage classes. 

When native speakers are present (these students are usually new to the United States and therefore don’t speak much English) the heritage speakers speak more Spanish in class. This benefits the learning environment. Additionally, there is still much that a native speaker can learn in a heritage speaker class simply by working on literacy through reading and writing. Native speakers all over the world take courses in their native tongue in order to improve their literacy and writing skills.


With all of these different levels that can be found in a heritage language course, free voluntary reading becomes a crucial part of the curriculum. By offering a wide range of books in the classroom, you can cater to the varying levels of mastery exhibited by your students. There is always room for growth and growth always has the potential to occur when reading is featured.

Personally, I found it helpful to educate my students on the distinction between these terms so that they could self-identify their starting point as a language learner. During a lesson I teach called Mi mapa de input lingüístico, I had students voluntarily place themselves along the continuum on the whiteboard. This was very eye-opening to the whole class and showed the diversity of linguistic backgrounds in our class. As described by Krashen, language shyness is a huge obstacle for heritage learners, so I like to call it out in the open from the start. This activity made it very clear that comparisons shouldn’t be made between each student’s skills as they have all had very different input experiences that have led them to varying levels of fluency. By addressing the elephant in the room, I hope to remove a lot of the pressure that my heritage speakers feel when it comes to speaking Spanish with their peers. In this lesson, I encouraged students to foster a growth mindset as they continue to sharpen their skills on their unique language learning journey.

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