Maintaining Spanish Heritage Language in Hong Kong

By Yuritzi Hernandez R.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Heritage and Minority Languages

2.1. Definitions

2.2. Challenges Facing Heritage Language Speakers

2.3. Benefits of Maintaining Heritage Language

3. Methods to Maintain Heritage Language

4. Sábados en Español –an Example of Heritage Language Program in Hong Kong

5. Concluding Remarks

6. References

7. Key Terms and Definitions

8. About the author

1. Introduction

Dramatic changes in our socio-cultural environment due to globalization and migration have had a negative impact on language diversity (TED, 2013). Dominant society assigns greater value to mainstream or majority languages than to peripheral or minority languages (Potowski, 2012, p.183). As Hart-Gonzalez and Feingold (1990, p. 15) point out, this is more likely to be the case where one language is associated with power-related activities, such as education, money-making, and governance. This often results in the diminishing use of the heritage language children grew up speaking at home.

In 2015 the United Nations (UN) set its new agenda for Sustainable Development that consists of 17 goals (commonly known as SDGs). Goal 4 is dedicated to building inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities (UN, 2015). Although the Goal does not mention language, creating awareness of the need to preserve heritage languages falls within its scope, as language and education are intertwined with each other.  In addition, UNESCO has a strong commitment to support mother tongue instruction to promote cultural and linguistic diversity (UNESCO, 2005). Each year on February 21, UNESCO (1999) observes the International Mother Language Day in order ‘to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world’ (p. v).

This entry aims to raise awareness and understanding of the urgent need to introduce and maintain Heritage Language (HL) Education. Heritage Language (HL) Education will serve not only to encourage local knowledge transmission, linguistic diversity, and multilingual education, but also to develop a fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world, thereby inspiring solidarity based on understanding, tolerance, and dialogue.

2. Heritage and Minority Languages

2.1. Definitions

As defined by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (Council of Europe, 1998), “regional or minority languages” are languages traditionally used within a given territory of a state by nationals of that state who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the state’s population. They are also different from the official language(s) of that state, and they include neither dialects of the official language(s) of the state nor the languages of migrants (e.g. Western Náhuatl in Mexico, Dungan in Kyrgyzstan, and Northern Khanty in Russia).

The term “heritage language” (HL) is used to identify languages other than the dominant language (or languages) in a given social context. Most of the academics in the field tend to adopt Guadalupe Valdés’ (2000, p. 1) definition of HL in the USA: ‘a student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or merely understands the heritage language, and who is to some degree bilingual in English and the heritage language’ (e.g. Spanish in the USA, Polish in Great Britain, and Turkish in the Netherlands).

The levels of proficiency within a group of HL speakers can vary enormously, depending on the family, cultural connections, community, or country of origin. Some speakers only understand the HL, others are receptive bilinguals who are able to understand the language but do not speak it, while at the other end of the spectrum there are the native-like speakers of the HL.

2.2. Challenges Facing Heritage Language Speakers

Although HL speakers are surrounded by their native tongue since birth, most children only receive formal education in the dominant language. Due to the reduced exposure to their mother tongue and the strong influence of the dominant language, such children use their mother language less frequently. With fewer mother tongue speakers surrounding them and a restricted—mainly informal—social context for HL use, their fluency is poor, language skills are weak, and their vocabulary is limited. The combination of these factors can result in language loss.

Val and Vinogradova (2010) (as cited in Potowski, 2012, p. 188) noted that the loss of the HL can result in a breakdown of communication among family members or negative experiences e.g., misunderstandings, embarrassments, or humiliation. It also can lead to decreased identification with the HL and heritage culture (Potowski, 2012, p. 188). Language is an important factor affecting the achievement of a good balance between social and emotional growth.

2.3. Benefits of Maintaining Heritage Language

Potowksi (2012, p. 179) points out that we rely on language to identify each other’s gender, age, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Language, thus, is not only a communication tool, it defines our identity, helps us develop our social interaction with family and peers, and endorses our cultural background, particularly when one moves across geographical and sociocultural borders (Potowski, 2012, p. 181).

Additionally, as Charles B. Chang (TED, 2014) mentions, language is the instrument we use to communicate, think, and analyze. Moreover, bilingual children develop stronger connections in the brain’s language area. Bialystok (1991) (as cited in Lightbown & Spada, 1993, p. 25) and other developmental psychologists have found convincing evidence that bilingualism can have positive effects on abilities that are related to academic success, such as metalinguistic awareness.    

As promoted by UNESCO (2016), the more instruction children get in their own HL, the better they perform in other areas such as mathematics, and the better academic results they achieve in second language school environments. It is also easier for children to learn a third language. Literacy programs in mother languages bring the self-confidence that children need to participate in their communities.

Furthermore, such children are the future, and should they go back to their country of origin, it will be easier for them to continue education in their HL. Finally, the acquisition and maintenance of more than one language can open doors to many personal, social, and economic opportunities (Lightbown, & Spada, 1993, p. 25). Bilingual children grow up with the possibility of having greater cross-cultural understanding, which may in turn foster better and more peaceful international relationships in future.

3. Methods to Maintain Heritage Language

The first and crucial step is to create awareness among parents, as they will transmit the HL and provide the tools for language development and proficiency. Previous generations had the misconception that children got confused by being spoken to in two languages. Genesee, Cargo, and Paradis (2004) (as cited in Lightbown, & Spada, 1993, p. 25), however, remark that ‘there is little support for the myth that learning more than one language in early childhood is a problem for children’. It is in the parents’ hands, at least for the first years in a child’s life, to maintain their HL. Bills (2010) (as cited in Rivera-Mills, 2012, p. 23) stresses that ‘to be maintained, a language must be transmitted from one generation to the next. If there is no transmission from parents to children and grandchildren, the product is language loss’.

The Stichting Nederlandse Onderwijs in het Buitenland (NOB) (The Foundation for Dutch Education Worldwide) recommends that parents have a fixed period each day or an activity that will only be conducted in the HL, and it is important that the child understands the connection between an activity and ‘its’ language. Children very easily recognize, for example, that school is an English-only ‘zone’, but if parents can recreate the same idea with a Spanish-only ‘zone’, then the children can easily make the switch.

Reading, if possible, should be fostered from an early age and can then become a lifelong activity for readers. Reading can teach children the difference between informal verbal language and academic written language (Minor, 2014, p. 213) and it will boost their vocabulary. Parents may also encourage children to write letters, emails, or messages to extended family and friends. Again, like reading, this can become a family activity.

Education in their HL is necessary as children need to continue developing academically. Being enrolled in a formal HL program will create a space for them to interact with other children who speak their same language and share their culture, and will help them develop their own identity by giving them, at the same time, a feeling of belonging.

Another suggestion for the development and maintenance of HL would be for mainstream schools to implement a HL class after school. As education policy makers should perhaps consider, the learning abilities of children taking such programs will not only improve, as but bilingual or multilingual children may also have a better starting position in the labor market.

As Ayala (2015) notes, the Singapore Mother Tongue Language Policy provides a great example of a language preservation strategy. This policy makes the study of mother tongues compulsory throughout primary and secondary school and is an integral part of student examinations (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2011).

4. Sábados en Español - an Example of Heritage Language Program in Hong Kong

Sábados en Español is a program for Spanish HL speakers in Hong Kong. The program started four years ago in response to the story of a boy who did not want to go to Spain during the summer holidays. The reason for his reluctance was that he could not communicate with his family and on the few occasions he dared to say something in Spanish, his family and friends would burst into laughter.

At the time of writing there are four levels being taught in the program: beginners, receptive bilinguals, transitional receptive bilinguals, and productive bilinguals. The program is facing many challenges, but particularly problematic is that fact that none of the teachers are specialists in HL teaching. The teachers also struggled with the lack of materials available for their HL learners. Lastly, the HL ability levels of the students vary with each school year, so the curriculum also has to be revised every year.

As Minor (2014) notes, the reality is that teachers are also not prepared for students of this kind. There are very few programs available to prepare teachers to teach HL speakers. The aforementioned lack of material tailored to suit HL learners, also forces teachers to improvise by adapting materials designed for First Language (L1) education or Second Language (L2) students, which involves much additional preparatory work.  

Minor (2014) recommends having specific goals for students and promoting self-esteem in relation to the use of Spanish. Also the use of ‘corrective feedback’ and ‘auto correction’ during class is suggested. This tool prevents students from feeling that they are being corrected all the time. Teachers should allow HL speakers to participate in the class, role play, create leadership activities, and prepare fun activities (Minor, 2014, p. 206). Teachers can help overcome the different language ability levels in class by allowing stronger students to help weaker ones with class assessments, and learners will feel empowered by this experience. Fostering pride (Minor, 2014, p. 219) will be more beneficial to the students than teaching them vocabulary lists.

As it is mentioned above, a significant challenge for educators is the variability in proficiency levels of the students enrolling in classes. Proficiency may relate to the students’ attitudes towards the language, their motivation, and finally their level in the acquisition process (Minor, 2014, p. 206). Motivation and attitude play important roles in learning any language, and children as well as adults are sensitive to social dynamics and power relationships (Lightbown & Spada, 1993, p. 65)

5. Concluding Remarks

After recognizing the importance of maintaining HLs, actions should be taken to address the world's plurilingual reality and thus benefit from the linguistic hybridity of the 21st century (Garcia, 2005, p. 605). Although UNESCO has taken steps towards promoting HL education, its actual implementation varies greatly. In some countries HL education is made compulsory throughout primary and secondary school (e.g., Singapore), but in most countries it has relied upon individual schools and private institutions to introduce HL education.

Making the community aware of the value of HL education is a first step. Then, perhaps, we should start with small projects such as meetings with parent volunteers at local libraries. Next, HL education could be expanded into community programs like Sábados en Español.  Following that, mainstream schools could implement HL education as an extracurricular activity. Ideally, education policy makers can take note of examples such as Singapore and try to implement them in their own countries.

6. References

Ayala, A. (2015). Indigenous Language Policy in Taiwan. In Jackson, L. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Education for Sustainable Development. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong/Master of Education Programme.

Council of Europe. (1998). European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

García, O. (2005). Positioning Heritage Languages in the United States. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 601-605.

Hart-Gonzalez, L. & Feingold, M. (1990). Retention of Spanish in the Home. International Journal of the Sociology of Language84, 5-34.

Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (1993). How Languages are Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Minor, D. (2014). Heritage Language Learners. In López-Burton, N. & Minor, D. (Eds.), On Being a Language Teacher: A Personal and Practical Guide to Success (pp. 202-221). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

NOB - Stichting Nederlands Onderwijs in het Buitenland. (n.d.).  NOB – Dutch Education Worldwide. Retrieved November 20, 2016, from

Potowski, K. (2012). Identity and Heritage Learners: Moving Beyond Essentializations. In Beaudrie, S. & Fairclough, M. (Eds.), Spanish as a Heritage Language in the United States: The State of the Field (pp. 179-200). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Rivera-Mills, S. (2012). Spanish Heritage Language Maintenance: Its Legacy and its Future. In Beaudrie, S. & Fairclough, M. (Eds.), Spanish as a Heritage Language in the United States: The State of the Field (pp. 21-42). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

TED (2014, May 30). Charles Chang: Three Reasons to Preserve (and Develop) a Heritage Language [Video file]. Retrieved from ttps://   

TED (2013, May 3). Kim Potowski: No Child Left /monolingual [Video file]. Retrieved from

United Nations (UN). (n/d). Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World. Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Retrieved from

UNESCO (n/d). International Mother Language Day 21 February. Retrieved from

UNESCO (2016). If you don’t Understand, How can You Learn? Presentation delivered by Aaron Benavot at UNESCO's celebration of Mother Language Day 2016. Retrieved from

UNESCO (2005) First Language First: Community-based Literacy Programmes for Minority Language Contexts in Asia. Retrieved from

Valdés, G. (2000). Introduction. In Spanish for Native Speakers. AATSP Professional Development Series Handbook for Teachers K–16, Volume I. (pp.1-20). New York: Harcourt College.

7. Key Terms and Definitions

Auto-correction: is a practice in which the teacher engages with the student to help them get to the correct answer; this technique fosters pride and allows the student to assume a leadership role.

Corrective Feedback: is a practice in the classroom in which the teacher highlights a mistake made by the students and they in turn repeat the utterance correctly.

Heritage Language is used to identify languages other than the dominant language (or languages) in a given social context.

Mainstream:  the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are shared by most people and regarded as normal or conventional.

About the Author

Yuritzi Hernandez R.

MEd, The University of Hong Kong