Supporting Both Heritage and Non-Heritage Learners in Your French Classroom

by Elizabeth Zwanziger
@ElizabethZwanz1


The demographics of French learners in the United States continue to evolve as we welcome newcomers from around the globe and our population grows more diverse. According to Statista, in 2019 there were over 1.2 million people in the U.S. who speak French at home,1 and francophone families must make important decisions regarding balancing language use at home and at school. Francophone families speak French at home to maintain cultural ties to their place of origin or to ensure children can communicate with family members here or abroad.

Children in these families are likely to be considered heritage speakers of French, a subset of multilingual people who have varying experience in the language. They may or may not have lived part of their lives in a francophone country or attended school in that language. They may understand the language, but not speak it. They may speak the language, but not write it. They may not have used the language themselves, but feel a familial or cultural connection to it. Each individual heritage speaker’s cultural and linguistic biography is unique.

Because of this, it is important to consider the factors in heritage speakers’ personal and linguistic identity. Children speaking a minority language in a majority other-language environment are participants in the family language planning of their parents or caregivers at home. Home language policies can have an emotional impact on them as they consider their own identity in relation to their language and culture of origin.2 Some heritage speakers feel resistance to the home language and others have a positive feeling about it.

Language-wise, heritage speakers of a minority language in a majority environment have been shown to possess native-like oracy in terms of language structure, but may have some non-nativelike pronunciation features.3 There may also be vocabulary gaps due to lack of exposure in a full range of contexts.4 Literacy (reading and writing) skills vary depending on whether schooling in French had begun or had been interrupted. Task types and genres of a typical U.S. academic setting may not be familiar to these learners.


So, how might educators of French welcome heritage learners into the classroom?

Many heritage speakers of French find themselves in classrooms alongside students who are learning an additional language for the first time. Heritage speakers’ presence in our classrooms presents new and exciting challenges for French educators, something with which our Spanish teaching counterparts may already be familiar. We were trained to teach traditional learners who may have limited vocabulary, who seek grammatical rules to understand concepts, and who are accustomed to learning in a classroom environment. Non-heritage learners’ needs call for a “micro-approach”, beginning with smaller pieces of language and building on them to create more and more complex language.5

Conversely, heritage learners may arrive with considerable vocabulary and fluid speech learned through everyday interactions. Because they possess considerable internal knowledge of French, heritage learners may profit most from “macro-approaches” to learning, which build on learners’ established language abilities in the overall content of their production and then shift the focus on homing in on the details of language structure and stylistics.

These are two distinct groups with different needs, so how are we to acknowledge the entire gamut of needs in the class and allow all to flourish? Current researchers in the relatively young field of heritage language learning propose that there remains much work to be done to fully comprehend how best to implement language instruction with heritage learners.6 Yet, French educators can consider aspects of current proficiency-based language teaching practices in an intercultural context that are beneficial to both types of learners. To help you get started, I have provided five strategies for supporting both sets of French language learners in your classroom:

  • Include audio and print materials and references to varied Francophone locations throughout the world in order to frame French as a linguistically and culturally relevant language.
  • Validate the language varieties of your heritage learners in class to contribute in a positive way to heritage learners’ personal identity and enrich non-heritage students’ knowledge of the world.
  • Create a core body of vocabulary the entire class can share, with related enrichment vocabulary for students who are ready to use it, to offset potential vulnerability regarding vocabulary,
  • Implement mutually beneficial cooperative learning, pairing students with a strong handle on language structure with those more familiar with the mechanics and genres of writing.
  • Tier activities and assessments, and provide scaffolding for those who need guidance in structuring responses or for adjustments in length expectations.

It is likely that we will see an increase in French heritage speakers in U.S. classrooms in the years to come. To support both heritage and new French language learners, we can reflect on plans for curriculum, placement, and class make-up that welcome the whole spectrum of our student population.

1Languages spoken (at home) other than English in the United States by number of speakers in 2019 (2021). Retrieved April 9, 2021 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/183483/ranking-of-languages-spoken-at-home-in-the-us-in-2008/

2Wilson, S. Family language policy through the eyes of bilingual children: the case of French heritage speakers in the UK. (2019). Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. doi: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01434632.2019.1595633?journalCode=rmmm20

3Kupisch et al. (2014). Acquisition outcomes across domains in adult simultaneous bilinguals with French as a weaker and stronger language. French Language Studies, 24, 347-376. doi: 10.1017/S0959269513000197

4Pearson et al. (1997). The relation of input factors to lexical learning by bilingual infants. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18-41-58.

5Kagan, O & Dillon, K. (2001). A new perspective on teaching Russian: Focus on the heritage learner. Slavic and East European Journal, 45, 507-518. Reprinted in Heritage Language Journal 1. www.heritage languages.org.

6Kagan, O & Dillon, K. (2017). Issues in Heritage Language Learning in the United States. In Van Deusen-Scholl, S & May, S (eds.) Second and Foreign Language Education, Encyclopedia of Language and Education, doi 10.1007/978-3-319-02246-8_3


Dr. Elizabeth Zwanziger’s passion for languages began during an under-graduate semester abroad through Luther College, where she quickly discovered that oral language is distinctly different from the written language in textbooks. Her interest in oral language continued to develop while teaching world language with a communicative approach and while completing a Master’s at the University of Missouri in the Department of Romance Languages. Through her Ph.D. work in Applied Linguistics at Boston University, she was able to study language development across various languages, including French, Spanish, German, Latin, and Inuktitut. This work continues to inform her instruction in both world language and teacher education courses at the University of Northern Iowa.

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