Growing Up Bilingual as a Heritage Language Speaker

Who is considered a heritage speaker? Heritage speakers are those who have been exposed to their heritage language (i.e., their first language) at home. They are introduced to a second language beginning at a very young age through contact with people outside their home or when they start going to school. Having grown up speaking two languages from an early age, heritage speakers are a great example of the important role that age and timing play in acquiring language proficiency.

How long does it take to learn a language and become proficient?

What is the ideal age to learn a new language?

Is there a time frame or an age at which you reach a ceiling for learning a language?

According to a new study, it may take up to 30 years to fully master a language—even for heritage speakers. Where, when, and how you learn a language are big factors in how proficient you will ultimately become.

In one of the largest linguistics studies ever undertaken, researchers set out to find out approximately when the “critical period” for achieving the highest level of grammatical fluency ends. The study, which was a joint effort between researchers at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston College, states that we retain the ability to learn language nuances well into our teens; however, we’re constantly improving our language for most of our lives.

If you begin learning a language before 10 years old and continue practicing your language skills, you have a very good chance of achieving a high level of language proficiency in that language. Your chances decrease significantly when you begin learning a new language after the age of 18.

The other important factor to consider is whether the language was acquired formally through a course of study at school, through informal conversations with family members exclusively at home, or through language immersion, which provides the best possible opportunity to become highly proficient. Heritage speakers have great accents; however, having an accent is not a great indicator for language proficiency, and it does not provide insight into the range of one’s language ability.

The length of time an individual has spoken a language makes a difference; in fact, the study shows a slight improvement (about one percentage point) in the grammar scores of people who have been speaking English for 30 years as compared to those who have been speaking the language for 20 years. These findings were consistent in both native and non-native speaking groups.

Although learning a language at home provides an opportunity to become bilingual, without a valid and reliable test, it becomes difficult to ascertain the level of language ability of heritage speakers.

Companies, academic institutions, and government agencies rely on Language Testing International (LTI) for their language testing needs. Each assessment is designed to properly determine the specific proficiency level of an individual, and ultimately to provide a valid and defensible language credential.

LTI works closely with your human resources department to identify the appropriate level of language proficiency required for the position you are looking to fill. Once your needs have been identified, we will help you qualify the right candidates with the language skills needed to be successful.

Call Language Testing International today for a free consultation on how companies are saving time and  money and hiring qualified bilingual talent.


Why Businesses Should Test Heritage Speakers’ Language Skills

Your company’s business depends on the professional communication skills of bilingual employees. How does this play a role in the hiring process? According to the resumes reviewed, many candidates are heritage speakers of the languages needed. If these applicants already speak the desired language, why is it important to test their language proficiency?

The term “heritage” refers to how individuals acquired their language abilities—not to how proficient they may or may not be in the language. For this reason, testing the language skills of heritage speakers must be part of the hiring process.

Many heritage speakers learn their heritage language in an informal setting (e.g., at home or in their communities) and use that language with family, friends, and co-workers. They may have native-like pronunciation, be confident when dealing with highly familiar topics, and engage freely and fluently on topics related to everyday life. Heritage speakers are typically exposed to their heritage language in childhood but may or may not have learned the language to its full functional capacity because another language became dominant in their day-to-day interactions. They may have never even received formal education in their heritage language. In fact, heritage speakers residing in the U.S. have typically received most of their formal education in English-speaking schools, and for this reason, they may not have all the functional abilities in their heritage language that they have in English. 

The term “heritage” does not indicate or predict any specific proficiency level. Heritage speakers’ extensive exposure to the language in informal contexts may result in profiles that differ from those of traditional second language learners. Nonetheless, their functional ability of language is assessed according to a common set of criteria, which corresponds to a given proficiency level. Their language skills can be assessed at any level of the proficiency scale as described in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.

The features of heritage Intermediate-level speakers are remarkably similar to those of second language learners in terms of their development of the functions associated with the Advanced level (lack of structural control, limited vocabulary, and the inability to perform the task). On the other hand, the speech of heritage speakers—even at the Intermediate level—may be marked by more fluency and confidence and more ability to fill cultural and linguistic gaps than is usually the case with Intermediate-level second language learners. 

Advanced-level heritage speakers typically perform Advanced-level tasks with quantity and quality. Their native-like pronunciation and fluency, as well as their extensive vocabulary and structural control, may distinguish them from their second language learner counterparts. When asked to perform tasks at the Superior level, Advanced-level heritage speakers may not demonstrate errors in language control nor diminishing fluency but rather may avoid addressing a Superior-level task. For example, rather than supporting an opinion, they may provide anecdotal information; rather than discussing a topic at the issues level and from an abstract perspective, they may resort to a concrete treatment of the topic; rather than speculating on possible outcomes when asked to hypothesize, they may describe a real situation.   

Heritage speakers at the Superior level demonstrate the ability to sustain the Superior-level tasks in extended discourse, using precise vocabulary, and with no patterned errors. They are not rated Superior because of the way they sound but rather because their ability to use the language effectively falls within the functional requirements for thatlevel.

Why, then, should businesses test heritage speakers’ language skills?  The term “heritage” does not identify what speakers can do with language, nor does it indicate how well theycan communicate in different situations. Simply identifying oneself as a “heritage speaker” of a language does not provide evidence to a prospective employer as to whether that person has the language skills appropriate for the demands of the workplace. Official testing of language abilities does provide this information. Testing heritage speakers, using official ACTFL assessments and reporting results based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, enables employers to have confidence in their hiring decisions.

Language Testing International, Inc. (LTI), the exclusive licensee of ACTFL, offers  businesses a wide variety of commercial and official testing options to assess language ability.  Proficiency scores enable employers to compare language abilities with the linguistic requirements of any given position and to hire with evidence that the speaker can meet those requirements. (Click here to view the Oral Proficiency levels in the Workplace chart released by ACTFL.)

Languages Can Help Reopen the United States

The COVID-19 crisis has caused drastic lockdowns of major sectors of the American economy in order to stop the spread of the virus. As the curve begins to flatten and states are allowing a phased reopening of local economies, we cannot forget how important qualified language professionals will be in helping ensure that the reopening is done effectively and safely.

Small businesses have been especially hit hard by the lockdowns, with much of the pain being felt by minorities. According to the United States Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, minority owned businesses “accounted for more than 50 percent of the two million new businesses started in the United States and created 4.7 million jobs. There are now more than four million minority-owned companies in the United States, with annual sales totaling close to $700 billion.” Over 99.9% of minority owned businesses have fewer than 500 employees.

The COVID-19 crisis has also heavily affected minority communities. African Americans are about 3.5 times more likely than white Americans to die from COVID-19, and Latinos are about two times more likely to die from the virus than white Americans. Even before the epidemic, minorities faced numerous obstacles gaining access to healthcare. As the debate rages on about if and how to reopen the economy, policymakers, health experts, and community activists will need to develop a plan to reopen the economy in a safe manner that limits exposure to the virus, especially among hard-hit minority communities.

The importance of languages to the success of such plans cannot be overstated. With effective language strategies, we can help minority owned businesses and communities recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19 and ensure that the re-opening process does not backfire. Governments, businesses, healthcare facilities, and nonprofits need to ensure that their people and communication strategies can effectively deliver the crucial messages that need to be conveyed. As Nelson Mandela stated, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

We must first remember that English is not the official language of the United States, in fact, there isn’t an official American language. American citizens are free to speak to each other in any language they so choose. Over 35 million American citizens (over 66 million if including non-citizen residents) speak a language other than English at home. Of that population (including non-citizens and residents), over 60% can communicate in English “very well.” That means that about 26 million Americans do not speak English “very well.” These statistics are important to the reopening of the United States, because these Americans also own businesses and live in communities hit hard by COVID-19.

In order to truly understand complex instructions and regulations that deal with healthcare, personal safety, and business, someone would need to speak English “very well.”  Peoplenot understanding these instructions and regulations due to a language barrier could put their life, and potentially the lives of others, at risk. Effective government and healthcare recommendations will mean nothing if significant portions of the American population are not able to understand and take them to heart due to a language barrier.

Local leaders, especially, can lead the charge in reopening the United States, because they know their communities better than federal officials in Washington D.C. or even than their own state governments. They can identify the key language groups in their communities and encourage translation of resources and instructions from the government and healthcare providers to those groups. Local minority owned businesses are often the cultural and commercial hubs of the community they serve. For example, growing up in Miami, Florida, I saw that there were numerous Cuban restaurants that acted as informal community spaces and news often spread within the community through these restaurants, and always in Spanish. This happens all across the United States through nearly every community with a concentration on a specific ethnic group.

Failure of translating these resources can lead to harm, but mistranslations and errors in interpreting can also be equally devastating. Language professionals who undertake the efforts to properly communicate with minority businesses and communities need to have a high level of language proficiency in the languages of those communities to faithfully translate complex resources. If there are mistranslations, people can be seriously harmed and legal liabilities may arise. For example, if a minority business owner who does not speak English does not understand instructions for keeping his or her employees safe and an employee gets ill, the business may get shut down, the owner may go to jail, the employee’s health may be put at risk, and other employees may lose their jobs. There are many very real examples of lawsuits filed due to mistranslations, and a death due to a mistranslation is simply an unnecessary death.

That is where Language Testing International (LTI) can help. LTI is the exclusive licensee of ACTFL assessments, widely recognized and accepted by government institutions, healthcare professionals, and businesses across the world. Thus, it is a perfect standard, as those key sectors will need to work together to address language barriers that may affect the reopening of the United States and ensure that their messages are effectively communicated without the risk of liabilities due to mistranslations.

The reopening of the United States will take time, and many lessons will be learned along the way. Special attention will need to be paid to minority businesses and communities to address the devastating effects of COVID-19. Languages are absolutely critical to the success of the reopening, and our leaders will need to ensure that all Americans, including those who are not fluent in English, are truly able to understand the messages needed to guide us to recovery. Partnering with LTI would be an effective strategy to achieve these goals.

Closing the Communication Gap on COVID-19

COVID-19 may be “coronavirus” in every language, but how we, as a global community, address it requires healthcare professionals who speak the native languages of the patients they care for and the diverse communities they work in. Language proficiency has become a fundamental skill for healthcare teams charged with communicating and sharing coronavirus precautions more effectively. How is your organization evaluating the language proficiency level or your multilingual employees?

While the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a household term these days, the provision of culturally and linguistically competent patient care is a challenge faced by healthcare professionals and agencies alike. For example, healthcare workers in diverse communities must quickly learn how the coronavirus spreads, how to protect themselves, how to help people prevent infection, how to care for patients that present symptoms, and so on. Considering that there have been confirmed cases in over 148 countries (UNifeed, 2020), all composed of multiple cultures, languages, and norms, it is easy to see how complicated the situation becomes for healthcare organizations when faced with communicating critical information to their multilingual patient communities.

Although English is the primary language of communication in the United States, there is a critical need and urgency for linguistically appropriate ways to communicate information regarding this pandemic; it literally has become a matter of life and death. The bottom line is that this crisis requires us to communicate on a global scale. Currently, basic vetted public information about coronavirus can be found in fifteen languages (Washington State Department of Health, 2020), including Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese. However, the need for communicating this information accurately and effectively is much greater than just making it available in fifteen languages on the Internet or in printed materials!

Healthcare providers are asking themselves: Do we have employees on staff who can help us communicate in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner to meet the needs of our patients? With a global literacy rate of approximately 86% (meaning 14% illiteracy rate; Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2018) varying by country, literacy levels in reading, writing, and comprehension can have an impact on the level of readiness to combat coronavirus.

To add to the complexity of the situation, “health literacy” levels are low. “Health literacy,” as defined by the Institute of Medicine’s report Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion, is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (National Network of Libraries of Medicine, n.d.). According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), only 12% of U.S. adults scored in the highest healthcare literacy proficiency levels (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.).

Based on the data, to truly ensure that culturally diverse people, communities, and countries can enhance their understanding of what is involved in preventing and treating the coronavirus disease, it essentially comes down to healthcare professionals who can communicate in languages other than English.

Since 1992, Language Testing International (LTI), a Samsung company, has been a leader in the development of language proficiency testing for more than 120 languages, globally. In partnership with the ACTFL, we proudly offer our healthcare partners valid and reliable reading, writing, speaking, and listening tests. Each test is designed to properly determine the specific proficiency level of an individual and ultimately to provide a valid and defensible language credential.

LTI works closely with your human resources department to identify the appropriate level of language proficiency required for the position at hand. Once your needs have been identified, we will help you qualify the right candidates with the language skills needed to be successful.

Contact us today for a free consultation on best practices for hiring multilingual talent!



National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). What is PIAAC?

National Network of Libraries of Medicine. (n.d.). Health literacy.

Roser, M., & Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2018). Literacy.

UNifeed. (2020). WHO/COVID-19 update.

Washington State Department of Health. (2020). Novel coronavirus fact sheet.