A heritage language is any language which a speaker learns and uses in his or her home but which is not the primary language of the larger outside society. Heritage languages are usually their speakers' first languages, although not all speakers are completely fluent. Speakers of heritage languages are almost always bilingual, speaking both their heritage language and the dominant language.
Heritage languages most commonly occur in immigrant or minority households where the native language of the parents is not the dominant language of the society. A child raised in this type of household will begin to speak the language spoken by his or her parents before learning the dominant language. The parental language can be considered a heritage language in the child's case, although not necessarily in the case of the parents.
For an example of this process, consider the a Russian-speaking family who move to the United States. Both parents are native Russian speakers, and although they become fluent in English, they find Russian easier and continue to use it in the home. Their child initially learns Russian from both parents. As the child grows however, the influence of school, friends and the media makes English her dominant language, even though Russian, the heritage language, was first.
Heritage language education is often informal. As a result, the level of fluency can vary a great deal between speakers. Some speakers are completely fluent in both the heritage and dominant languages, while others are only completely fluent in the dominant language. To continue the example above, if the child did not receive any formal schooling in Russian, she might not be literate in it, or might have difficulty using it outside of casual conversation.
Some minority linguistic communities pay great attention to heritage language education. For example, in some communities in the United States with high populations of native Chinese speakers, classes are organized to teach Chinese to the children of immigrants, many of whom may already have some command of Chinese. Without further education, heritage languages can disappear within a few generations. The importance of a heritage language may be especially high in countries where the language serves as a marker of ethnic, cultural or religious difference.
Speakers of a heritage language may show varying levels of command, but they almost always respond well to further instruction in the language. For instance, many schools in areas of the United States with large Spanish-speaking populations teach Spanish classes which are specifically for students with an existing background in the language. These classes focus on areas outside conversational use and move at a rapid pace, suited to students already familiar with the basics of the language.