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Today, German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language in the world (after English) and has between 90 and 95 million native language speakers. Additionally, it has 10 to 15 million second-language speakers. Most of these speakers live in the German-speaking countries of Europe.

German has been spoken in the US since the first group of Germans came to this country in 1607. According to US Census information of 2018, German-Americans are still the largest self-reporting ethnic group (22.1 million). However, there has been a decline of German as a foreign or world language in the educational system of the US as a consequence of German’s loss of importance as a heritage language in the US.

The professional concept of heritage language is relatively new. It is a result of globalization and research of incorporating the languages of minority students, i.e., students who do not grow up using solely English in the US, into the regular school curriculum either as a subject or as a medium of instruction. While a great amount or research exists in heritage language linguistics, sociolinguistics, heritage language statistics, heritage language pedagogy and more, historically, German as a heritage language has received less attention. 

The German Sprachschulen offer classes to heritage language learners from Pre-K – adult and to learners of German as a foreign language. More than any other German institution in this country, they straddle the divide. The following article provides information on their work from a historical, linguistic, and pedagogical perspective and articulates the difference in expectations and approaches to teaching a heritage versus a foreign language.

Presented June 15, 2020

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