ERIC Identifier: ED424791
Publication Date: 1998-11-00
Author: Brecht, Richard D. - Ingold, Catherine W.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Tapping a National Resource: Heritage Languages in the United
States. ERIC Digest.
The United States has an unprecedented need for individuals with highly
developed competencies in English and one or more other languages. Because the
United States interacts with virtually every nation in the world, and because
U.S. society includes individuals and communities from many of those nations,
the need for proficiency in their languages for use in social, economic, and
geopolitical areas has never been higher. More than 150 non-English languages
are used in the United States, and many of them are taught in its colleges and
universities. However, to develop the high level of bilingual skill required for
professional purposes can require many years and far more hours of instruction
than a typical college curriculum provides.
When we look to the formal education system, generally expected to meet the
nation's language needs, we find both quantitative and qualitative shortcomings.
Relatively few U.S. students receive long-term, articulated instruction in any
foreign language in their pre-K-12 education. Even at the university level, the
number of graduates with professional-level level bilingual skills is quite
limited. For example, although enrollments in Spanish have grown rapidly, the
supply of college students who graduate with professional-level skills in
Spanish is inadequate to meet the huge demand. In many less commonly taught
languages, graduate programs produce only handfuls of speakers with any level of
proficiency at all.
As a nation, we have placed little value on foreign language skills, and the
formal education system is not attuned to developing language skills for
professional purposes (other than language teaching). It is for these reasons
that the nation needs a strategy for developing an important, but largely
untapped, reservoir of linguistic competence "heritage language speakers" the
millions of immigrants who are proficient in English and have skills in other
languages that were developed at home, in schools in their country of origin, or
in language programs developed by their heritage communities within the United
RANGE OF PROFICIENCIES
Although the range of proficiencies
of heritage language speakers varies widely, individuals who have regularly used
a heritage language with family and friends since birth typically possess
language skills that would require nonnative speakers of that language hundreds
of hours of instruction to acquire, e.g., native pronunciation and fluency,
command of a wide range of syntactic structures, extensive vocabulary, and
familiarity with implicit cultural norms essential to effective language use
(Valdes, 1997). Even though heritage language speakers also frequently lack some
of the language skills and knowledge required in a professional context (e.g.,
literacy or the ability to use more formal language registers), their "head
start" is substantial, making the cost in instructional time and dollars
required to bring them to professional levels of competence significantly less
than the cost for individuals without home language experience. This is
especially true for the less commonly taught languages and for the many
strategically important languages almost never taught in elementary and high
school and available at only a small number of colleges and universities.
Given the real and growing needs for professional-level language skills in
the United States, why are our heritage language resources going untapped? The
problem has several interrelated components: First, the inherent fragility of
heritage languages; second, the limitations of current programs, within both the
heritage communities and the formal education system, to maintain and develop
heritage language capacity effectively; and third, underlying deficits in the
information, interaction and dialogue, research, and national infrastructure
necessary to increase the effectiveness of these institutions.
FRAGILITY OF HERITAGE LANGUAGES
Heritage languages, absent
active intervention or new immigration, are lost over time both in the
individuals who once spoke them and in the immigrant community, and typically
die out within three generations. Language dominance among immigrant families in
the United States shifts toward English in well-established, predictable
patterns: Children arriving in the United States are generally English dominant
by the time they reach adulthood; children born in the United States to
first-generation immigrant families move quickly to English dominance with the
onset of schooling if not sooner; and the third generation of children are not
only native speakers of English but have usually lost much of their expressive
ability in their heritage language. Systematic heritage language programs that
include formal instruction in the written language, standard or prestige usage,
and technical or professional domains are necessary to maintain heritage
languages at professionally useful levels of knowledge and skill.
LIMITATIONS OF CURRENT PROGRAMS
In the United States, there
are two potential sources of effective programs: the heritage communities
themselves, through their various cultural institutions; and the formal
education system, including public schools, community colleges, and
Community-Based Institutions. Some ethnic communities in the United States
have well-developed weekend or evening schools offering study of their heritage
languages (see Wang, 1996). Those ethnic groups with little recent immigration
are likely to provide mostly cultural programs with limited substantive language
content. For many groups, however, including most Hispanic cultures, heritage
language schools have not been part of their community structure in the United
States. Where such schools exist, they generally face substantial obstacles in
supporting language learning. Most often, their teachers and administrators are
volunteers and, while often highly educated, are not trained language teachers.
Appropriate materials are scarce. Funding, teacher training, instructional
materials, and administrative infrastructure are all problematic. Moreover,
students entering high school often rebel against time spent in heritage school
programs, where they do not receive credit, which reduces the time available to
do the work required by their formal schooling. Efforts to gain formal
recognition of learning in heritage schools are ongoing but have had limited
success. To address these issues at the systemic level, some ethnic communities
have formed national or regional organizations for their heritage language
The Formal Education System. Our educational systems, serving kindergarten
through university and adult education, have made only limited progress to date
in developing heritage language resources. A 1997 survey conducted by the Center
for Applied Linguistics (Branaman & Rhodes, in press) found language classes
for native speakers available in only 7% of secondary schools (up from 4% in
1987). In higher education, language programming is overwhelmingly geared to
English speakers, even though enrollments in certain less commonly taught
languages are dominated by heritage learners. Spanish, as both a traditional,
commonly taught language and the nation's most widely spoken heritage language,
is consequently the unquestioned leader in the development of specialized
programs and learning resources for heritage students. At present, the emerging
field of Spanish for native speakers is served by a task force of the American
Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, a Special Interest Group of
the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, an annual
conference, a newsletter, a listserv, and a growing body of research and
specialized teaching and learning resources. While much work remains to be done
in Spanish, including faculty development, specialized assessment tools, and a
survey of current programs and practices, the work to date provides a valuable
model for other languages.
Pre-K-12 school systems, colleges, universities, and adult education programs
are increasingly aware of the language backgrounds of their students. There is
clearly a groundswell of interest in heritage language issues, particularly in
public universities and community colleges, but individual institutions lack the
specific expertise that heritage language development requires in language
programming. In addition, they lack systematic means for interfacing with the
heritage communities whose value and whose needs they increasingly recognize.
Despite significant commonalities of interest and complementarity of resources
between formal educational structures and heritage schools, models for
articulation and collaboration are in their infancy.
DEFICITS IN INFRASTRUCTURE
In terms of both heritage
communities' capacity to maintain and develop their language, and the capacity
of the formal education system to incorporate heritage language development into
its programs, there are major systemic needs that, if unaddressed, will
perpetuate the under-utilization of this critical intellectual and strategic
resource. The most pressing needs are summarized below.
* We need to gather information on heritage languages as a national resource,
including ways that other nations have developed and utilized their heritage
languages; on the heritage communities in the United States and their social and
cultural institutions; and on heritage languages in the official education
system (existing programs, curriculum, materials and instructional practices;
the number and language profiles of heritage students at all levels).
* We need to conduct research that focuses on heritage language development
as a linguistic, social, and cultural phenomenon; on best practices in the
design of programs and curricula; on characteristics of effective teaching
strategies, learning resources, and assessment instruments; and on public
policies in this and other nations and their implications for national language
capacity, heritage communities, and multilingual individuals.
* We need to establish a national infrastructure to develop collaboration,
resource sharing, and articulation among the various institutions,
organizations, and constituencies with a role in heritage language policy and
THE RESPONSE: THE HERITAGE LANGUAGE INITIATIVE
backdrop of increasing interest and need, the National Foreign Language Center
and the Center for Applied Linguistics launched the Heritage Language Initiative
with the aim of building an education system more responsive to heritage
communities and national language needs and capable of producing a broad cadre
of citizens able to function professionally in both English and another
** Objectives of the Heritage Language Initiative **
Initiate and support dialogue among policy makers and language practitioners on
both the need to address heritage language development and the most effective
strategies for doing so.
Design and implement heritage language development programming in pre-K-12,
community colleges, and college and university settings and foster better
articulation among those settings.
Provide support in terms of policy, expertise, and resources for heritage
community systems wherever they exist, and support their development where they
Encourage and support dialogue leading to collaboration, resource sharing, and
articulation between formal education systems and the nation's heritage
community language schools and programs.
Encourage and support research, both theoretical and applied, on heritage
language development and on related public policy issues.
** Organization and Responsibilities of Constituent Groups **
To accomplish these goals, the Initiative will begin to develop a durable
infrastructure to support heritage language development policy and practice.
This infrastructure will include the following constituent groups: Higher
Education Consortium of Universities for Heritage Language Development; National
Council of Heritage Language School Systems; Heritage Language Development
Research Collaborative; pre-K-12 Heritage Language Network; and Language
Expertise Consumers Group. The initiative will be organized and supported by a
secretariat, guided by an advisory board of internationally-recognized experts,
and coordinated by a council of chairs of the constituent groups.
Branaman, L., & Rhodes, N. (in press).
Foreign language instruction in the United States: A national survey of
elementary and secondary schools. McHenry, IL: Delta Systems.
Valdes, G. (1997). The teaching of Spanish to bilingual Spanish-speaking
students: Outstanding issues and unanswered questions. In L.C.Colombi & F.X.
Alarcon (Eds.), "La ensenanza del espanol a hispanohablantes: Praxis y teoria"
(pp. 8-44). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wang, X. (Ed.). (1996). "A view from within: A case study of Chinese heritage
community language schools in the United States." Washington, DC: National
Foreign Language Center.