Desktop version

Home arrow Economics

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Heritage Language Education

We desperately need competence in languages—to become “a language competent society,” in Tucker’s phrase (1991)—and our huge and varied heritage language resources have a definite role to play in achieving such competence.

—Joshua A. Fishman (2001: 95)


In Chapter 1, I pointed out that nearly one in five Americans speak a language other than English at home and that many of these people are bilingual in English and their mother tongue. In this chapter, I discuss reasons for promoting the bilingualism of these individuals and how doing so makes economic and political sense for the mainstream English-speaking society. I show how the languages that are learned and used by immigrant and indigenous populations in their communities are a national asset, a resource that must be treasured and not wasted. I describe the current state of ethnic and indigenous language education in the U.S. and the benefits and challenges of developing heritage language programs. I will argue that creating a “language-competent society” requires a major change in attitude toward minority languages and that language professionals and educators play a significant role in bringing about that change. I first begin with a story of an Indian immigrant who became a soldier in the U.S. Army.

On November 10, 2010, for the first time in nearly three decades, the U.S. Army graduated a Sikh enlisted soldier who was granted a rare religious exemption to wear his turban and beard (see Schafer, 2010 for the article). The Sikh religion requires its male followers to keep a beard and have unshorn hair covered by a turban. Since 1984, Army policies prohibiting those items had effectively prevented Sikhs who wanted to keep their articles of faith from enlisting. But Spc. Simran Lamba was recruited under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest recruiting program, which enlists legal non-citizens with critical language skills, such as Lamba’s knowledge of Hindi and Punjabi (Kappler, 2010). The 26-year-old Indian immigrant from New Delhi came to the U.S. for his graduate studies. After graduating from New York University with a master’s degree in industrial engineering, he sought to enlist in the U.S. Army and get his citizenship. He requested a waiver from the Army to allow him to keep his articles of faith. After a ten-month review, the Army approved Lamba’s request on the condition that the religious accommodations will not affect training, unit readiness or cohesion, individual readiness, morale, discipline, or safety and health. In an interview, Lamba said that his black turban, full beard, unshorn hair, and religious beliefs posed no problems during his ten weeks of training. He said, “I am proud to be a Sikh, I’m proud to be a U.S. citizen, and proud to be a U.S. Army soldier.”

A cursory look at the comments posted by readers of the article shows that many people think this is a positive step in the right direction for the U.S. military. One writer, “nassy,” states, “Thank you for becoming a citizen and for wanting to fight for our country. I am a Veteran US Navy and would have loved a chance to meet you and serve with you ...” Another writer, “TexasSteve,” says, “An awesome day for Spc. Lamba! Very glad to see the U.S. Army doing this.” But a few people think that making special exceptions like this is unfair. One comment posted by “sopha-1125249” states, “I find this offensive. His religion is his right... but not joining our military with the same amount ofrequirements and expectations as all those other brave people makes me wonder where this country is going. As if the USA could not teach someone in the military this language they proclaim to need!! My son proudly serves in the United States Army . . . I guess they forgot to mention to him that he can serve and do it his way! ... This exception is wrong!!!” Another reader, “BK- 2647153,” writes, “Giving this soldier a ‘special waiver’ because he speaks a language is just wrong. It is so easy to learn a language using the Rosetta Stone program that I am sure the Army did not need this individual . . .”

Contrary to what “sopha-1125249” and “BK-2647153” claim, however, it is not so easy for Americans to learn non-European languages like Hindi and Punjabi in a short amount of time. It requires a typical English-speaking American thousands of hours of intensive language instruction to achieve the level of advanced proficiencies required by the military. Whether the Army’s accommodation of the Sikh soldier’s religious practice is right or wrong, the fact is that the military’s need for individuals with advanced proficiencies in foreign languages is currently not being met with American citizens, which is why the U.S. government has created special provisions to naturalize noncitizens with the required skills.

The U.S. has an unprecedented need for people with highly developed skills in foreign languages. 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 (Brecht & Ingold, 2002). Since 2002, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a series of reports on two key aspects of foreign language capabilities across the federal government— (1) the use of foreign language skills and (2) the nature and impact of foreign language shortages at federal agencies, particularly those that play a central role in national security. The 2010 GAO report states that the lack of foreign language capability at some agencies, including Department of Defense and the State Department, has resulted in “backlogs in translation of intelligence documents and other information, and adversely affected agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism, and diplomatic efforts” (United States Government Accountability Office, 2010).

How can the country’s foreign language needs be filled? According to The Ethnologue, 176 languages are spoken in different communities across the U.S. (Lewis, 2009). Although many of these languages are taught in American colleges and universities, developing high levels of linguistic and cultural proficiency needed for professional purposes requires many years and far more hours of instruction than is provided by a typical college curriculum (Brecht & Ingold, 2002). It is difficult for people to attain professional-level competence in a language that is learned for the first time in college. In less commonly taught languages like Hindi and Punjabi, university programs produce only handfuls of speakers with any proficiency at all, far short of the levels required for professional purposes. At the PreK-12 levels, the choice of foreign languages narrows drastically, with only a few languages that are taught for few hours per week as a separate subject. Relatively few American students receive long-term, articulated instruction in any foreign language in their PreK-12 education (Brecht & Ingold, 2002).

There exists, however, a largely untapped reservoir of language competence in the U.S., namely heritage language speakers—the millions of people from indigenous or immigrant communities who are proficient in English and also have skills in other languages that were developed at home and in their communities or in their countries of origin (Peyton, Ranard, & McGinnis, 2001). Although the range of language proficiencies possessed by heritage language speakers varies widely, individuals who have used a language regularly at home since birth typically have skills that would require nonnative speakers hundreds of hours of instruction to acquire (Brecht & Ingold, 2002). Such skills include native pronunciation and fluency, command of a wide range of grammatical structures, extensive vocabulary, and familiarity with implicit cultural norms essential to effective language use (Valdes, 2000). In order to work in professional contexts, many heritage language speakers need explicit instruction in the use of formal registers and discipline-specific vocabulary, but they usually require substantially less instructional time than do non-heritage learners.

Supporting heritage language speakers to develop in their languages, then, is a logical step in addressing the nation’s critical shortage of individuals with foreign language capabilities. However, heritage language speakers are often discouraged from learning their languages, and responsibility for teaching and maintaining the minority languages falls squarely on individual immigrant and indigenous communities. Indeed, public support for heritage language programs is very rare. The prevailing attitude of the American public is that the bilingualism of immigrants is a problem and a sign of resistance to integration into the mainstream society. As the comments critical of the special religious accommodation of Spc. Lamba suggest, social integration of ethnic and racial minorities is a highly contentious issue in America. Some people feel that immigrants should give up their ways of life in order to be accepted as legitimate members of their new society.

It is not clear how many Sikhs before Spc. Lamba have served in the U.S. military, but those who have done so apparently gave up their articles of faith since Lamba was the first Sikh soldier to be granted the waiver. In fact, one comment on the article by “Chris-2644004” states, “I have no idea exactly how many Sikhs have served as enlistedmen in the US Army in the last 30 years, but I know of one other that deserves to be noted. I was privileged enough to have served with and been able to call another Sikh soldier, Sgt. Uday

Singh, my friend. Sgt. Singh enlisted in the US Army in September 2000 and was killed in action in Habbinayah, Iraq on December 1st, 2003.”

It is ironic that while the nation has such a pressing need for citizens who can function in languages other than English, those who already possess such linguistic and cultural knowledge are pressured to lose it. A great deal of effort is invested in teaching English-speaking Americans foreign languages— languages to which they have no personal or family connection. The role of foreign language programs is rarely questioned even though these programs have had little success in producing advanced bilinguals. But programs that are designed to help immigrants maintain their languages are constantly questioned and debated, as seen in a highly publicized English-only movement that has dismantled bilingual education in states like California, Arizona, and Massachusetts (see also Chapter 7; see Table 4.1 for a side-by-side comparison of heritage language and foreign language programs).

In this chapter, I discuss this apparent paradox in American language education. We will see why a major change in attitudes toward minority languages is necessary to achieve a language competent society. I will describe heritage language development efforts in both formal school systems and community- based schools and compare the degree of effectiveness of various program options. I will discuss the importance of intergenerational transmission of heritage languages and why language minority parents should be encouraged to speak their native languages with their children at home as a first step in language maintenance efforts. I will then conclude with recommendations for educators, policymakers, and families. First, I turn to a definition of “heritage language.”

Heritage Language Education vs. Foreign Language Education


Heritage Language Education

Foreign Language Education

• Geared for language minority students

• Geared for language majority students

• Constantly questioned and debated

• Rarely questioned

• Can be highly effective in producing functional bilinguals

• Has a low rate of success in producing functional bilinguals

• Learners have cultural knowledge

• Learners have little or no cultural knowledge

• Learners have family connections to the language

• Learners have little or no family connections to the language

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics