Research: Maintaining Teens' Connection to Heritage Language

Strategies to Keep Alive Adolescents' Interest In and Use of Their Heritage Language


Ana Lucia, co-founder and board member, ABRACE (Brazilian Association of Culture and Education), based in the U.S.

Luana Ferreira Pires, Portuguese teacher, based in Spain.


Description of the situation:

Many parents, when arriving in the host country or after a time there, are already disconnected from their native roots, or more distant from their home country identity than they realize. This can be passed on to their children in various ways, which compromises the acquisition and use of their heritage language and culture.

It is not enough to delegate to schools the primary responsibility for this process. Since there is a wealth of linguistic-cultural-social knowledge from parent to child, the seed is within the family, and it needs to be nourished continuously.

The whole process becomes even more complicated when children enter adolescence. In addition to age issues (hormonal, physical, psychosocial changes), they have more demands at school and more  commitments outside the home. Thus, with children overloaded and unmotivated, and families tired of 'fighting', everyone ends up giving up, whether it is learning in the classroom or creating and taking advantage of opportunities to interact in the inherited language.

Many initiatives or heritage language schools do not have programs for this age group (13 years and older), and when there are programs and students, there are few, and the level of engagement of the teens can be very low.

Thus, it is necessary to find ways to continue feeding the seed planted when they were small and encourage these young people to continue (or resume, if they have interrupted) their journey of acquiring aspects and diverse elements of the language and culture of their country (here, with a focus on Brazil). That way, they do not abandon what they have already learned, they can keep alive the bonds with their family in Brazil, and they feel comfortable recognizing Brazilian citizenship as part of their identity.


Central theme and associated concepts:

Identify activities that heritage language speakers between 13 and 17 years old most like to do using the language, which may indicate paths and possible strategies to be followed by families and schools to keep alive this identity connection. 

Main concepts: 

  • Heritage language and culture
  • Socio-cultural roots
  • Identity bond
  • Image of the heritage language
  • Sense of belonging

Research questions:

1) Do they do specific things, and what do they like to do most using the Portuguese language? (for example, what songs they listen to or what they like to read)

2) What opinions do they have about the importance of the language and culture of heritage in their lives?

3) How can families and schools contribute to the process of connecting young people with their heritage language and culture?

General objectives:

Our goal is to obtain information that can help families, teachers, and schools to promote activities that contribute to the connection of adolescents with the Portuguese language and associated culture.

Research Project

Study design: 

  • Part of a semester-long course offered by an institute in Portugal
  • Main idea: Find ways to foster teens' connections to their heritage language
  • Sample: 21 teens (13-17 years old, Portuguese as HL speakers) -16 from the Washington, DC area; 5 from Spain
  • Methods: questionnaire (21) and volunteer individual interviews (5)
  • Main topic: How much they use Portuguese for these activities

o Speaking
o Listening
o Watching
o Reading
o Writing

Responses: (questionnaire)

How much they use Portuguese for these activities:



(always, almost always)


 Speaking 62%

Mostly with family and relatives

 Listening 38% Music (both traditional and popular genres) 
 Watching  43%  YouTube, movies, news, comedies, series
 Reading 24% Genres (Fiction, comic books, social media) + Authors (established  and new ones)
 Writing 33% Text msg, social media, email, notes


Applications they mostly use:

  - WhatsApp - 71%

  - Instagram / Snapchat - 33%

  - TikTok, Youtube, Twitter - 28%

Topics they research in the heritage language:

  - News and current events

  - Sports

  - Comedies

  - Culinary

Responses: (Interviews)

The teens:

  • are interested in learning more
  • are more motivated and believe they can achieve bigger and better results, if they

  - have more autonomy for projects and lessons

  - work collaboratively to plan classes and choose topics and activities

  • want classes to use creative and dynamic resources

Some suggestions they gave for activities and topics:

  • Meetings with peers for socializing and for debates
  • Reading program (books, articles)
  • Exchange of experiences and ideas among peers
  • Give lectures for adults

Topics: current events, politics and international relations, sports and music


Published: Tuesday, September 29, 2020