ERIC Identifier: ED464515
Publication Date: 2002-05-00
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 language competencies not only in English, our societal language, but
also in many other languages. In fact, the need for individuals with proficiency
in languages other than English for use in social, economic, diplomatic, and
geopolitical arenas has never been higher (Brecht & Rivers, 2000). Even
before the events of September 11, 2001, congressional hearings had begun to
document a shortage of professionals with the language proficiencies required to
carry out a wide range of federal government activities. More than 70 government
agencies reported a need for individuals with foreign language expertise. Since
September, the General Accounting Office has suggested that shortages of staff
with foreign language expertise at several agencies "have adversely affected
agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence,
counter terrorism, and diplomatic efforts" (Barr, 2002).
Over 175 languages are used in the United States (SIL International, 2002),
many of which are taught in U.S. colleges and universities. However, developing
the high levels of proficiency needed for professional purposes can require many
years and far more hours of instruction than a typical college curriculum
provides. There exists, however, a largely untapped reservoir of linguistic
competence in this country, namely heritage language speakers-the millions of
indigenous, immigrant, and refugee individuals who are proficient in English and
also have skills in other languages that were developed at home, in schools, in
their countries of origin, or in language programs provided by their communities
in the United States (see Peyton, Ranard, & McGinnis, 2001). This digest
outlines the reasons for and challenges of developing the language skills of
heritage language speakers and describes one effort to carry this out, the
Heritage Languages Initiative.
DEVELOPING LANGUAGE SKILLS
The U.S. education system has
generally been expected to address the nation's language needs. Yet relatively
few U.S. students receive long-term, articulated instruction in any foreign
language in their pre-K-12 education. At the university level, the number of
students graduating with professional-level bilingual skills is minimal. In many
less commonly taught languages, university programs produce only handfuls of
speakers with any proficiency at all. To meet the demand for professionals
skilled in languages, a strategy is needed for developing the untapped reservoir
of linguistic competence that exists in heritage language speakers.
RANGE OF LANGUAGE PROFICIENCIES
The range of language
skills possessed by heritage language speakers varies widely. However,
individuals who have used a language regularly since birth typically have skills
that would require nonnative speakers hundreds of hours of instruction to
acquire. Such skills include 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,
2000). Many heritage language speakers need to learn the specific language
skills required in a professional context (e.g., use of formal language
registers), but because of their existing language and cultural knowledge, they
may require substantially less instructional time than other learners to develop
these skills. This is especially true for speakers of the less commonly taught
Given the need for professional-level language expertise, why are our
heritage language resources going untapped? The problem has several interrelated
components. These are discussed below.
FRAGILITY OF HERITAGE LANGUAGES
Without active intervention
or new immigration, heritage languages are lost over time both in the
individuals who speak them and in the community, and they typically die out
within three generations (Wiley, 1996). English has already been established as
the dominant language among indigenous families in the United States. Among
immigrant families, language use shifts toward English in 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 third generation children are not only
native speakers of English but usually have lost much of their expressive
ability in their heritage language. Systematic instruction in heritage languages
that includes formal instruction in the written language, standard or prestige
usage, and technical or professional usage is necessary to develop
professional-level skills in these languages.
LIMITATIONS OF CURRENT LANGUAGE PROGRAMS
In the United
States, heritage speakers of most languages other than English have limited
opportunities to develop their skills. Some opportunities are available through
cultural institutions of heritage communities. Others are found in public
schools, community colleges, and universities.
"Community-Based Institutions." Some ethnic communities in the United States
have well-developed weekend or evening schools that offer study of their
heritage languages (see Wang, 1996). Ethnic groups with little recent
immigration are likely to provide mostly cultural programs with limited
substantive language content. For many groups, however, 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 not trained language teachers.
Funding, teacher training, appropriate 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, and prefer to spend their available time on work
required in their regular schooling. Efforts to gain recognition of learning in
heritage schools and to introduce heritage language classes are ongoing but have
had limited success. To address these issues, some ethnic communities have
formed national or regional organizations for their heritage language schools.
Because K-12 schooling in the United States is primarily in the hands of local,
district, or state decision makers, ethnic communities with large local
populations have had only mild success in convincing school systems to include
"Formal Education System." The U.S. education system has made minimal
progress in developing heritage language resources. A 1997 survey conducted by
the Center for Applied Linguistics (Rhodes & Branaman, 1999) found language
classes for native speakers to be available in only 7% of secondary schools (up
from 4% in 1987). In higher education, language programming is overwhelmingly
geared toward English speakers, even though enrollments in certain less commonly
taught languages are dominated by heritage learners. Spanish, the most widely
taught foreign language and the nation's most widely spoken heritage language,
leads in the development of specialized programs and learning resources for
heritage language speakers. The Spanish for native speakers field is served by a
task force of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese
(AATSP), a Special Interest Group of the American Council for the Teaching of
Foreign Languages (ACTFL), an annual conference, a newsletter, a listserv, and a
growing body of research and specialized teaching and learning resources (see,
for example, Roca, Marcos, & Winke, 2001). However, implementing separate
programs and classes for these students is difficult. A recent survey conducted
by the National Foreign Language Center and AATSP (Ingold, Rivers, Tesser, &
Ashby, 2002) sampled college and university Spanish programs. Only 18% of those
surveyed reported having classes for heritage Spanish speakers, and responses
suggested that the viability of separate tracks for these students is limited to
institutions with large populations of Spanish-speaking students.
Public school systems, colleges, universities, and adult education programs
are increasingly aware of the language backgrounds of their students and
interested in addressing the needs of heritage language speakers. However,
individual institutions lack the expertise that heritage language development
requires and systematic means for interfacing with heritage communities. Despite
common interests and shared resources between formal educational structures and
heritage schools, models for program articulation and collaboration are in their
DEFICITS IN INFRASTRUCTURE
For heritage communities to
maintain and develop their languages and for the U.S. education system to
incorporate heritage language development into its programs, major needs must be
addressed. These are the most pressing needs:
* Information about the following: heritage languages as
a national resource, including ways that other nations have developed and
utilized their heritage languages; heritage communities in the United States and
their social and cultural institutions; and heritage language offerings in the
formal education system (e.g., existing programs, curricula).
Research in these areas: heritage language development as a linguistic, social,
and cultural phenomenon; best practices in the design of programs and curricula;
characteristics of effective teaching strategies, learning resources, and
assessment instruments; and public policies in this and other nations and their
implications for national language capacity, heritage communities, and
A national infrastructure to develop collaboration, resource sharing, and
articulation among institutions, organizations, and constituencies with a role
in heritage language policy and programming.
Access for heritage language speakers to authentic content materials and
language models and, where possible, to native-speaker language arts curricula
appropriate to their ages and language profiles.
THE RESPONSE: THE HERITAGE LANGUAGES INITIATIVE
this backdrop of increasing interest and need, the National Foreign Language
Center and the Center for Applied Linguistics launched the Heritage Language
Initiative in 1999 with the goal of building an education system that is
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 language.
To accomplish this goal, the Heritage Languages Initiative has the following
Initiate and support dialogue among policymakers and language practitioners on
the need to address heritage language development and the most effective
strategies for doing so.
Design and implement heritage language programs in pre-K-12, community colleges,
and college and university settings, and foster better articulation among these
Strengthen existing heritage community-based education systems, and encourage
their development where they do not exist.
Encourage dialogue leading to collaboration, resource sharing, and articulation
between formal education systems and heritage community language schools and
Encourage research on heritage language development and on related public policy
To accomplish these objectives, the initiative seeks to develop a durable
infrastructure to support heritage language development policy and practice.
This infrastructure will include pre-K-12 heritage language educators, higher
education institutions, community heritage language school systems, proprietary
language school educators, U.S. government language educators, heritage language
researchers, and consumers of language expertise. Through collaboration and
information sharing among these groups, this infrastructure will preserve and
develop our valuable language resources.
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