Heritage language acquisition is the acquisition of a first language, which is a sociolinguistically minority language, in a bilingual or second language (L2) context, and takes place in a predominantly natural or informal environment Some heritage speakers receive formal instruction in their heritage language as adults, but most do not A fundamental belief in the study of adult second language acquisition over the years has been that the process of learning a second language does not depend on the context in which the language is being learned. At the same time, much of adult second language acquisition takes place in formal environments – the classroom. The subfield of instructed second language acquisition is well established, and its foundational question is whether systematic manipulation of the input and the conditions for learning facilitate the development and acquisition of additional languages. The fact that the linguistic development of instructed second language learners and uninstructed heritage speakers in their second and heritage language show many similarities in their acquisition of syntax, semantics, and morphology provides evidence of the autonomous development of language as a cognitive system in response to linguistic input but independent of specific context. However, most recent experimental research also point to important differences between heritage speakers and L2 learners in their linguistic performance in different skills, language processing, and language use that can only be explained by the context of learning and access to written/spoken language, implicit/explicit grammatical information, error correction, and different registers. This chapter will first provide a brief overview of the role of context in language learning in these two populations and discuss how linguistic accuracy, communicative competence, and fluency develop in informal language learning contexts, which today involve study abroad experiences, access to the world wide web, and gamification, among others. Because most studies on L2 learners involve instructed learners while studies on heritage speakers do not distinguish between instructed and non‐instructed heritage speakers, the chapter will stress the importance of future research comparing how heritage speakers and L2 learners develop their L1 and their L2 in both formal and informal learning contexts to elucidate how context shapes and informs additional language learning at the cognitive and sociocultural level in adolescents and adults.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Handbook of Informal Language Learning
EditorsMark Dressman, Randall William Sadler
ISBN (Electronic)9781119472384
StatePublished - Feb 2020


  • first language acquisition
  • second language acquisition
  • heritage language acquisition
  • instructed environment
  • naturalistic environment
  • technology for language learning


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