Heritage Speakers Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Heritage Speaker?

When we talk about heritage speakers, we’re usually referring to a person who has learned a language informally by being exposed to it at home as opposed to having learned it formally in a school setting. It may be their native tongue – the language they identify as being their primary language – but more often than not, their heritage language becomes secondary to English, the language in which they receive their formal education and is used the most in their daily life outside the home.

How Do Heritage Speakers Differ from Second Language Learners?

A heritage speaker may speak the language easily and fluidly (what we call fluency) but may not have learned the language to its full functional capacity. For example, a heritage speaker may be quite comfortable talking about everyday topics but lack vocabulary on subjects that go beyond the pale of personal experiences and themes. This is not a failing of the heritage speaker but a recognition that fluency does not always equal proficiency in all contexts.

Why Are Proficiency Tests Important?

Proficiency assessments measure the test-taker’s ability to use a language to accomplish specific functional tasks regardless of how, where, and when the language was learned. Differing from an achievement test, which measures knowledge of specific information (what a person knows), a proficiency test targets what an individual can do with what he or she knows. A language proficiency test is an evaluation of how well a person can use language to communicate in real life situations.

At LTI, our raters are trained to objectively appraise a test-taker’s proficiency with the target language. They do this by asking questions that clearly and purposefully elicit the targeted function and evaluate responses carefully to confirm that they contain the vocabulary and sophistication to accomplish the task at hand.

How Are Proficiency Standards Set?

Establishing an appropriate proficiency standard for a position requiring language skills is the first step in developing a multilingual workforce. If standards are set too low, the organization risks customer dissatisfaction and operational inefficiency. If standards are set too high, the applicant pool is unnecessarily narrowed, and qualified applicants may be unfairly excluded.

Proficiency requirements for organizations are often context-specific. The vocabulary depth and levels of written and oral proficiency vary widely among industries and positions. When it comes to language proficiency, one size does not fit all.

The ideal method for setting realistic standards for language-specific positions is task analysis, a concept not unique to language assessment but well-suited to establishing proficiency standards. This process involves closely examining all of the various communication tasks of a speaker and selecting an appropriate proficiency level based on the practical needs of the position. Once proficiency standards have been set, certifications based on practical assessments of speaking, writing and listening give the organization, multilingual candidates and employees confidence in the fairness of the process (objective standards for both heritage and second language learners) and the effectiveness of the outcomes (staffers confidently equipped with the appropriate language skills for the position).