From 1978 to 2004 Heine held the chair for African Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany. His main focal points in research and teaching are African linguistics, language sociology, grammaticalization theory and language contact. The grammaticalisation theory, which deals with the changes in grammar, and to which he contributed 7 books and numerous articles, is his main focal point. He is one of the initiators of Discourse grammar.
Heine was born in Mohrungen, East Prussia (now Mor?g, Poland). In 1944 his parents fled to Austria and later took up residence in Bavaria, before settling in Leverkusen in 1948. From 1949 to 1959 Heine attended the Landrat-Lucas-Gymnasium in Opladen. Afterwards, he studied at the Universities of Cologne (Köln) and Hamburg. In 1967 he was awarded a PhD in Cologne. In 1972 he received his postdoctoral lecture qualification for African studies.
From 1968 to 1969 he was an assistant at the Department for African Studies of the Cologne University, from 1969 to 1972 he was a lecturer and from 1975 to 1978 visiting professor at the University of Nairobi. In 1978 he took over the chair of African Studies at the University of Cologne.
For his scientific work he has carried out 25 field research trips to Ghana, Togo, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Namibia as well as lecturing trips to Australia, Austria, Brasil, England, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Tanzania and United States of America.
Guest professorships brought him to La Trobe University, Melbourne in 1994/1995 and from 1999 to 2000 to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, United States, in 2002 to the Dartmouth College, USA, in 2005 to the University of Graz and from 2005 to 2006 to the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Wassenaar, the Netherlands, in 2006 to the University of Hamburg, in 2007 to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes (Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l'Asie Orientale "CRLAO"), Paris, in 2007 to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 2008 through 2009 to the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Japan, and in 2009 to the Chonnam National University, Korea. He was a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town in 2012 and 2015, and in 2014 he was appointed Yunshan Chair Professor at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China (2014 - 2016).
So far, Heine has been invited to speak at 33 international conferences. His life's work comprises 33 books and about 120 periodical articles in the special fields of linguistics, socio-linguistics, historical linguistics and grammaticalisation theory. He is co-editor and/or member of the advisory boards of 17 magazines or series of books. Since 2014 his main interest has been, jointly with Gunther Kaltenböck und Tania Kuteva, the analysis of linguistic discourse. In the framework of Discourse Grammar developed by these authors, two components of discourse planning are distinguished, where one, Sentence Grammar, is centrally concerned with the construction of sentences while the other, Thetical Grammar, is dedicated to the relationship between speaker, hearer, and the text.
His awards include a membership with the Executive Council, International African Institute, London. In 1986 he became Hans Wolff Memorial Lecturer at the Indiana University, USA, in 1990 Raymond Dart Memorial Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1990 he received the Kenya Kiswahili Association Award in Nairobi, in 1994 he was Fellow of the Australian Research Council, in 1995 he received an award from the National Kiswahili Council of the Republic of Tanzania. In 1995 he became August Klingenheben Memorial Lecturer at the University of Leipzig and in 1996 a Fellow of the British Academy. From 1997 to 2000 he was president of the Committee for World Congresses of African Linguistics and in 1999 he became a full member of the North Rhine-Westphalia Academy of Sciences. In 2008, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, South Korea, appointed him a Distinguished World-Class Scholar, and in 2009 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Evolutionary Linguistics Association, Brussels. In 2012, he became an Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America.