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Heritage Language Education in Community-Based Programs

Other than formal school systems, community-based organizations provide heritage language education. Some heritage communities in the U.S. have well- developed weekend schools that offer language classes. For instance, about 150,000 students took Chinese language classes in community-based Chinese schools across the U.S. in 2007 (McGinnis, 2008: 231). There are approximately 1,200 Korean community language schools in the U.S. with a total student enrollment of about 60,000 (Lee & Shin, 2008). More than a third of these schools are located in the areas near Los Angeles and New York, with high concentrations of Korean immigrants. For many ethnic groups that are geographically more dispersed and are fewer in number, however, heritage language schools have not been part of their community structure. And where such schools exist, they generally face substantial obstacles in supporting language learning (Brecht & Ingold, 2002).

Community language programs in general have had little prestige and visibility in the broader community (Tse, 2001). They suffer from lack of recognition by public education systems, which generally view work done in heritage schools as extraneous and unrelated to mainstream education. Furthermore, many community-based schools are riddled with internal problems. Research has shown a weak correlation between community language school attendance and proficiency in the language in question (Sohn & Merrill, 2008). Teaching techniques that poorly address the learning styles of heritage learners, lack of motivation by students who resent having to go to school on weekends, and lack of professional development of teachers all contribute to low success rates (Lee, 2002). In addition, students are often turned off by instructional materials that have little direct relevance to their lives. For instance, in some Korean heritage programs, Korean history texts have been used to teach grammar, but with little or no background knowledge of Korean history, many students rapidly lose interest (Lee & Shin, 2008). Probably the biggest problem with community-based schools is that heritage learners see these programs as being completely removed from their regular American schooling experiences and providing little tangible benefit.

Although most community language programs operate independently from formal school systems, some heritage language sectors have been successful in increasing recognition of their languages by public educational entities. For instance, the inclusion of some heritage languages as part of standardized tests such as the SAT II and the Advanced Placement (AP) exams has led heritage students to see their languages as legitimate and valued entities. Since Korean and Japanese were included as SAT II elective subjects, interest in learning these languages among the heritage students and their parents increased markedly (Lee, 2002). Enrollment in Chinese language schools in southern California increased once students could receive foreign language credit from their local public schools for studying Chinese at community schools (Chen, 1996). The vast majority of the 5,129 SAT II Chinese Test takers in 2001 were heritage Chinese learners, and the same has been true of the AP exam in Chinese (McGinnis, 2008).

Given these figures, McGinnis (2008: 233) finds it ironic that heritage students who take the SAT II and the AP Chinese tests are not the “target audience” as defined by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board, which administer these exams. McGinnis (2008: 233) portrays the ETS- and College Board-described “target audience” as a “student with from two to four years of classroom-based experience learning the language in question as a foreign language in a formal instructional setting.” He argues that:

The challenge that lies ahead is to convince College Board officials that,

rather than limiting their sales and distribution to the K-12 sector, they need to recognize that Chinese community schools can and should be part of the potential market for both the AP Chinese curriculum and test. However much Board officials believe that they are “not in the business of testing heritage learners,” ... they are in fact very much “in the business” of Chinese heritage language learner assessment.

(2008: 236)

Along the same lines, Fishman (2006: 417) makes an impassioned plea for the public to recognize the potential contributions of heritage languages to the greater society:

It is just as scandalous and injurious to waste “native” language resources as to waste our air, water, mineral, animal and various non-linguistic human resources. How long must languages and cultures be trivialized if they are learned at home, in infancy and childhood, and only respected if they are acquired later, during adulthood, when they are usually learned less well and at much greater cost in competence, time and money?

For language minority students in the U.S. with no opportunity to learn their languages in any type of program during their K-12 years, college may be the first time they may be able to take formal coursework in their native languages. This is the topic of the next section.

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