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  • Writer's pictureHLE Network

Hiring a heritage language teacher? What you need to know

December 30, 2020

What does it mean to be a heritage language teacher in a supplementary education program compared to what it means to be a modern foreign language teacher in the public school system? Thinking about how these teaching positions differ is a useful exercise for anyone who wants to better understand the challenges that are intrinsic to teaching heritage languages.

The comparison below is taken from a presentation at the U.S. 2020 Community-Based Heritage Language Schools Conference called "Hiring, Training, and Retaining Effective Teachers at Community-Based Heritage Language (CBHL) Schools in the U.S. and Canada" by Renate Ludanyi, Sigrid Haas-Belluz, and Trudie Aberdeen.

What is the difference between a mainstream (language) teacher at a public school and a heritage language (HL) teacher? When hiring a teacher, a heritage language school manager must make sure that the teacher is aware of the difference between a mainstream teacher and a HL teacher.

Setting aside pedagogical issues (teaching methods and materials), let's think simply about the logistical issues. To start, HL teachers are teaching programs that must compete against weekend sports, music programs, and other extracurricular activities. They must teach to students who might not be interested (prone to complaining), and whose parents are often tired. HL programs often receive little to no support from local or federal governments.

When hiring a teacher, a heritage language school manager must make sure that the teacher is aware of the difference between a mainstream teacher and a HL teacher.


A mainstream schoolteacher usually teaches to a group of children who are grouped by age and have approximately the same level. The mainstream schoolteachers move the children from a beginner level onward in a linear fashion, using available teaching material and meeting several times per week. A HL teacher, on the other hand, usually teaches a group of children from a bigger age range and whose linguistic abilities can vary a lot. They can usually understand the language well, but their levels of ability in speaking, reading, and writing will be very different. Teaching material is usually not available for this group, and even if it is, it has to be adapted. On top of this, the children often meet only once per week.


A mainstream language teacher will teach at a school where attendance is mandatory. All children must go to school and no one argues with this. A HL teacher will teach a program that is not mandatory, so the students who attend for a variety of reasons, with differing levels of motivation (from eager students to students who miss a lot of classes).


In mainstream schools, attendance of foreign language classes is required, parents are usually not involved in the process, the classes are free as a part of the regular education program, and the classes take place in the same building as all of the other classes the students are following. When it comes to HL lessons, on the other hand, the students are there because the parents want them to be; parents might also be teachers, administrators, or financial sponsors; parents must pay a fee for the children to attend the class; and the parents must often physically take the children to a separate location after school hours to reach the HL lessons.


Finally, let's look at the teachers themselves. A mainstream foreign language teacher will have a professional teaching career and will have opportunities to follow professional development courses, sometimes paid conference attendance, and usually paid sick leave. They are free from teaching in the weekend. Being a native speaker of the language is usually not required and there are available curriculum and teaching/testing standards available for the students. And they are paid as other teachers are paid in the field. In contrast, HL teachers teach out of personal commitment (though sometimes as a part of their professional career), and range from having an academic background to having no degrees or teacher preparation. Being a native speaker is usually prerequisite. Curricular teaching and testing standards are often not defined or not available. Finally, compensation for teaching at a HL school ranges from adequate pay to being poorly paid, to not being paid at all – and teaching often takes place in the weekend or early evening, with no paid sick days and few extras. It is for these many reasons that HL schools and teachers require support from the community to succeed. It is important to understand and recognize the work that these teachers do and the challenges they face.


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