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There is much debate over what constitutes a heritage language (Wiley & Valdes, 2000). In the U.S., the term has been used to refer to an immigrant, indigenous, or ancestral language that a speaker has a personal relevance and desire to (re)connect with (Wiley, 2005). It has been used synonymously with community language, native language, and mother tongue to refer to a language other than English used by immigrants and possibly their children. For pedagogical purposes, Valdes (2001: 38) defines a heritage language speaker as “someone who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken and who speaks or at least understands the language and is to some degree bilingual in the home language and in English.” Most of the five million or so students designated as ELs in American PreK-12 schools fall into this category.

Van Deusen-Scholl (2003: 221) takes a broader view and characterizes heritage language learners as “a heterogeneous group ranging from fluent native speakers to non-speakers who may be generations removed, but who may feel culturally connected to a language.” She distinguishes “heritage learners” who have achieved some degree of proficiency in the home language and/or have been raised with strong cultural connections from “learners with a heritage motivation” who “seek to reconnect with their family’s heritage through language, even though the linguistic evidence of that connection may have been lost for generations” (Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003: 222). An example of a “learner with a heritage motivation” is a fifth generation Chinese American who grew up in an English-speaking home but decides to take Chinese lessons as an adult to reconnect with his family’s heritage.

The term “heritage language” has gained currency in the last 15 years, particularly in the U.S., but is not without problems. Some people think that it feeds into stereotypes that minority languages belong to the “other” rather than to the mainstream society. In such thinking, children in heritage language classes are relegated to their historic pasts—their heritages and heritage languages (Garda, 2005). Baker and Jones (1998: 509) caution that:

the danger of the term “heritage language” is that, relative to powerful majority languages, it points more to the past and less to the future, to traditions rather than to the contemporary. The danger is that the heritage language becomes associated with ancient cultures, past traditions and more “primitive times.” This is also true of the terms “ethnic” (used in the U.S.) and “ancestral.” These terms may fail to give the impression of a modern, international language that is of value in a technological society.

For these reasons, in Canada, multicultural policies aimed at inclusion of heritage language programs in mainstream educational institutions have involved a shift in terminology from “heritage language” to “international language” (Duff, 2008). International language used in this context refers to languages other than Canada’s two official languages (i.e., English and French) and Aboriginal languages (Tavares, 2000). Duff (2008: 82) points out that the change in terminology reflects a more forward-looking global focus as opposed to one that harks back to the ethnolinguistic roots of certain sectors of the population. In Europe, the term minority language has been used more frequently than heritage language, and a further distinction has been made between languages of immigrant and refugee groups (immigrant minority (IM) languages) on the one hand and languages of indigenous groups (regional minority (RM) languages) on the other (DeBot & Gorter, 2005).

Different terminologies go in and out of fashion, and nomenclature often reflects the political and social climate of a country at a given time. The term “bilingual education,” for instance, has been suppressed in recent years since it has become associated with academic failure of immigrant students. Crawford (2004: 35) notes that instead of the term “bilingual education,” “dual language, dual immersion and two-way immersion are increasingly used as ‘safer’ terms for what was originally known as two-way bilingual education, in hopes that avoiding the ‘B-word’ will minimize opposition.” However, this has caused confusion among laypersons, as “dual language” is interpreted as a synonym for any form of bilingual education (see also Chapter 8).

Regardless of what terms are used to refer to heritage languages, the fact is that these are the speech varieties of ethnic/linguistic minorities who, to varying degrees, attempt to maintain and pass down their mother tongues to future generations in an English-speaking environment. As I explained earlier, this is not an easy task given the enormous social pressures placed on minority language speakers to give up their languages. In a world of limited resources and conflicting interests, promoting the interests of minority populations is not a priority for majority populations. Heritage languages are often marginalized from mainstream discussions because the majority populations do not see them as being relevant to their own lives.

Successful cases of heritage language development almost always involve the initiative and ongoing support (financial and otherwise) of members of the heritage communities in question. They are rarely initiated and supported exclusively by the society at large. But in order for heritage communities to win broad public support for language teaching efforts, they need to be able to articulate concrete benefits of language maintenance and bilingualism not only for heritage learners but also for members of the mainstream society. One type of program that holds much promise in this regard is two-way (dual) immersion education, which promotes the bilingual development of both heritage and non-heritage speakers. I will return to two-way immersion programs later in this chapter and in Chapter 8.

But in the next section, I describe heritage and foreign language education in K-12 schools and universities.

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