When Foreign Language Isn't Foreign

Vanessa Fonseca, now a graduate teaching assistant in the University of New Mexico’s Sabine Ulibarrí Spanish as a Heritage Language program, said it took her all of two minutes to figure out a non-heritage Spanish class she stumbled into as an undergraduate was not for her.

December 15, 2006

Vanessa Fonseca, now a graduate teaching assistant in the University of New Mexico’s Sabine Ulibarrí Spanish as a Heritage Language program, said it took her all of two minutes to figure out a non-heritage Spanish class she stumbled into as an undergraduate was not for her.

It wasn’t just that Fonseca and her sister comprised two of the three Hispanic students in a class of about two dozen. It was also that once her fellow students started speaking, Fonseca, who had been exposed to the language as a child largely through her grandparents’ conversations, in addition to her schoolwork, realized that she’d been misplaced. The other students were at a different level, she said. Not higher, not lower. Just different.

“I knew the first day of class that it wasn’t what I was looking for,” said Fonseca, who quickly switched to the heritage language program, where she said a different instructional approach better suited her needs.

Classes for heritage language learners – those students with either some basic level of proficiency or a cultural or familial tie to a language, depending on whose definition you use – have gained increasing attention from educators in recent years. Many American colleges now have enough heritage speakers not only of Spanish but of languages like Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Hindi -- languages that are increasingly important educationally -- that colleges are considering how best to teach heritage and non-heritage students. Plus, post-9/11, the federal government has become more interested in foreign languages, and the students who might quickly have the ability to become fluent.

All of the sudden, with the government in need of a quick solution, reaching heritage language learners, those students who oftentimes are already partway to proficiency, became a federal priority, said Robert Blake, director of the University of California Consortium for Language Learning & Teaching which, along with University of California at Los Angeles’ Center for World Languages, was awarded a federal grant in August to oversee the first, Department of Education-funded national language resource center to be devoted to heritage language research. The center, based at UCLA and funded with a $326,000 annual grant through 2010, is the home base for a number of planned research efforts in a field generally facing a dearth of instructional resources.

“It's an important initiative and a smart way to tap the linguistic resources that we have in this country," said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. "A lot of the initiatives coming out of the federal government have to do with security; it makes total sense to cultivate the languages that are already in the country to provide a systemic understanding of these languages for generations to come."

But providing that "systemic understanding" isn't easy. Many heritage speakers who are apparently fluent have never studied their languages in an academic sense and have shortfalls in their knowledge. At the same time, educating them separately can be controversial -- as to some it feels like ethnic segregation.

“What we have now is interest and structure. Really, the heritage language programs are struggling to catch up to the attention and the needs,” said Joy Peyton, vice president of the Center for Applied Linguistics and a member of the four-person leadership team for the Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages, a project of the linguistics center. Heritage language courses – which had long been taught informally in community settings (a survey of community-based programs in the 1980s cited by Peyton identified 6,553 programs in the United States) -- are now being pushed to new, more academic levels, Peyton said. “Take Chinese for instance. Suddenly, there are calls from all sectors of the country, the education sector, the defense sector, commerce, saying ‘We need people who speak Chinese.’”

“You need curricular materials, teachers, teacher training, funding for programs, places for these programs to fit within the educational system. These are all beyond what the traditional system was set up to do.”

Developing a Discipline

No comprehensive listing of college-based heritage language programs exists (17 different programs are profiled on the Alliance's Web site, however). Colleges, with their self-aware student populations, may prove to be especially fertile ground for heritage language courses. Many students from Chinese backgrounds for instance distance themselves from the language in middle and high school, but, said Hongyin Tao, a Chinese professor at UCLA, “get more interested in their Chinese heritage” as they grow up.

Despite this, heritage classes have often been relegated to second-class status within the university departments where they do exist and, up until recently at least, scholarly efforts in the field have been somewhat scattered. But if ever there were an atmosphere that would facilitate scholarly inquiry into the instruction of heritage language learning – and, in turn, more firmly situate heritage languages as an area of study within the humanities – this might be it.

The political stars are aligned, but so too are the scholarly efforts in synch. The first academic conference on heritage language learners happened in 1999 in Long Beach, California, and was followed up by two other conferences, one in 2000 to establish a research agenda, and another in 2002. One year later, the first edition of The Heritage Language Journal, an online, blind-refereed publication, was published. The journal’s fourth and most recent volume, released this fall, deals exclusively with issues surrounding Chinese heritage language learning.

At the new National Heritage Language Resource Center, Olga Kagan, the director and principal investigator and a UCLA Russian professor, said research initiatives will include studying the different needs and language-learning resources of the various heritage communities, examining the grammar used by heritage language students to determine if there are consistencies in gaps or strengths across languages and developing a curriculum specifically designed for heritage learners who already benefit from a certain level of exposure and proficiency. After designing guidelines for a general heritage language curriculum in the center’s first year, the research efforts will narrow to focus on developing two language-specific curriculums per year until 2010: Korean and Persian the second year, Hindi/Urdu and Arabic the third and Vietnamese and Filipino in the fourth and final year funded by the federal grant.

Currently, Kagan said, there are two textbooks for learning Chinese as a heritage language, and a textbook for Russian that she wrote with two co-authors. In many other languages, however, resources tailored for heritage learners are limited, requiring instructors to adapt more traditional materials. “Instructors suffer. It’s very hard for them to teach because they don’t have specific materials. They have to invent all the time as they go along, so I hope we’ll be able to help them with that and make an impact that way.”

In heritage language classes, instructors tend to take a macro approach, Kagan said, taking advantage of the skills students possess and addressing their limitations. In many cases, heritage students will be highly proficient in speaking and comprehension, but will essentially be illiterate, Kagan said – meaning they have different needs than some of their peers who may need to learn how to pronounce their vowels. If taught in an introductory language class designed for foreign learners, which would typically be approached from a micro perspective (learning vocabulary words, verb conjugations, etc.), “They’ll spend the first year learning how to say things they already know how to say,” Kagan said.

“They’re not tabula rasa,” said María Dolores Gonzales, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Spanish as a heritage language program at UNM. But while heritage learners often benefit from their earlier exposure to the language, they also bring baggage with them, not least among the worries weighing them down that the version of the language they speak is "impure.” In addition to assuaging insecurities by addressing the history and social politics surrounding the development – and survival -- of different dialects of Spanish in New Mexico, Gonzales said instructors approach particular grammar rules by asking students what they already know. “We work from there.”

Language Politics

But as is so often the case with the history of language acquisition and loss, uncomfortable political dynamics can surround heritage language learning. Especially when a heritage student’s prior relationship with a language may be more emotional than concrete -- but even when there are basic differences in proficiency levels -- can heritage tracks pose a risk for a type of self-selected segregation?

It’s a topic that’s being questioned by scholars in the field, said Peyton of the Center for Applied Linguistics. “Once you have a placement system, and you start naming classes, you might have something called the ‘regular Chinese class’ and the ‘heritage Chinese class’ and then the ‘native Chinese class.’ What do you mean by each of those terms and who goes into those classes, why are they in there, why did they choose to be there and how do they feel about that? And how do other people feel about them?”

A humanities doctoral student on the West Coast wrote about these uncomfortable politics as they apply to South Asian language learning on her blog last year. The student, who said in a Wednesday interview that she thinks heritage language programs can prove to be valuable at the introductory level, added that instructors sometimes carry with them dangerous expectations and assumptions about "heritage" versus "non-heritage" students, regardless of which track a student might choose. The doctoral student, who speaks Bangla with her family daily but is learning Hindi (in non-heritage classes), remembered when a teaching assistant assumed she also was proficient in Hindi. “It seemed such a strange assumption to make about me. If I already knew Hindi, why would I be in a second-year class?”

“There’s this idea that if you’re brown-bodied, that body must maintain all that type of information.”

Furthermore, some of the blogger's peers flagged heritage classes as problematic, she wrote: "A few of my classmates scoffed at the idea of setting up a system which would almost inevitably result in 'the brown kids' being put in the heritage class, and how novel of an idea this was, particularly as something the university might support with a rhetoric of ability and non-ability."

Yet, Blake, of the UC Consortium, said that when heritage language programs are designed to tailor to different needs – and don’t extend beyond the introductory levels – it’s hard to find fault with them. “Who wants to waste time on things that you already know how to do?” Blake asked. “There you are twiddling your thumbs while some Anglo student is just trying to understand what was said, where, as a heritage learner, you already understood it. You want to talk about something else – how do you write it?”

Combining all students after the introductory level, however, Blake said, is essential. In fact, heritage language programs typically exist on the preparatory level, with the two tracks collapsing together for those students who enroll in upper-division courses or choose to major in a language. Heritage language classes often “catapult those students into the upper-division courses and the major and make for a healthy department,” Blake said.

Plus, said Fonseca, the UNM graduate student, heritage language learners often find that a separate introductory track provides a welcoming community in a potentially intimidating university setting.

“The students have a connection to each other because of their language. It’s kind of like a family sometimes. The more advanced students are willing to help the beginning students,” said Linda Godson, coordinator of the Heritage Language Initiative at Portland State University, which this winter will feature one course each in heritage Hindi, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese, in addition to a service learning class about the heritage language movement. Students and community members of any level – including some, although not many, raw beginners who simply feel a connection with the language – can sign up for the heritage language courses, and are free to enroll in sequential semesters.

“There’s a great variety of people, a great variety of motivations,” said Godson, adding that about half of those enrolled in the Portland State heritage classes are students, with doctors, engineers and “all kinds of people” filling up the rest of the seats. “There’s no common thread to tie them all together, except that they want to learn their language.”


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