Four Lessons from the Heritage Language Symposium, Part I

I’d never heard Arabic spoken before I started studying Arabic as a freshman in college—and I’d barely seen the script, besides tucked into the corner of the occasional photograph in the newspaper.  Most students in foreign language classrooms start out like me, with little idea about the language or culture they’ll get to know closely over the next few years.

But not all students.  There’ s another category of language learner called heritage learners, who come enter with a personal connection to the language and culture they’re getting to know.  These learners often have very different needs than learners like me.

Recently, I attended a symposium on heritage language learners featuring a 3-hour workshop with Dr. Maria Carreira of California State University, Long Beach.  She provided some tips on working with heritage learners.  In this post, I’ll discuss four key lessons from the symposium; in a follow-up post, I’ll discuss how these lessons apply to OneWorld Now!’s students of East African heritage.

1. There are two definitions of heritage language learners:

  • Linguistic heritage learners: A narrow, linguistic definition based on their proficiency in a language other than English.
  • Cultural heritage leaners: A broad definition based on affiliation.

Students from the first group are the ones who have one or more family members speaking to them in the target language at home, or who spend their early childhood in a country or school where the language is spoken.  Their command of the language is far from perfect, but they’re usually able to communicate at a basic level, and on the first day of class they’ll probably get the gist of what their teacher is saying.  In other words, they’re leaps and bounds ahead of students like me when they step into class.

Students from the second group don’t know enough of the target language to communicate, but they have some connection to the culture where the language is spoken.  They may have family or ancestors who spoke the language, but they themselves weren’t exposed much, and they haven’t spent significant amounts of time in country. They might know how to greet someone, but they’re just as lost as I am when someone talks to them at length.

The challenge for teachers is figuring out how to meet the needs of both groups.

2. Language learning is an emotional experience for heritage learners, so teachers must address socio-affective issues in addition to cognitive issues.

Most language teachers worry, quite naturally, about their students’ linguistic competence and development; when teaching heritage learners, Dr. Carreira impressed on us, teachers must also attend to their emotional needs. Learning their home language in school can bring up a variety of issues for heritage learners: feelings of rejection from both their cultures—for example, they may feel too “foreign” to be American, yet too American to be truly part of their parents’ culture—as well as shame at lacking full proficiency in their home language.

How to address these emotional needs? Dr. Carreira recommended that teachers of heritage learners help foster pride in belonging to both cultures, as well as provide space for their heritage learners to build a sense of community with others like them.  They can do this by using materials that draw on themes of interculturality, alienation, and belonging, and use targeted groupings that allow heritage learners to work together as groups at times. Teachers can also use heritage learners who are comfortable as local cultural experts in class, recognizing the special insights they have to offer.

While linguistic heritage learners need teachers to differentiate for their linguistic needs as students who already know some of the target language, all heritage learners—linguistic and cultural—can benefit from attention to their sense of belong to two cultures.

3. Most heritage learners enter with a basic conversational speaking proficiency and little or no literacy in their home language.

The typical linguistic heritage learner learns their home language from their parents and extended family. But when students begin to attend American schools their English language proficiency begins to exceed their home language proficiency, and by the time they reach college English has become their dominant language. In their home language, they retain the language skills that children acquire early in life, like perfect pronunciation, an intuitive grasp of spoken grammar, spontaneity, and household vocabulary. They lack, however, the broad range of vocabulary and the literacy that characterizes native-level proficiency in a language. Teachers, said Dr. Carreira, must push their heritage students to work on the skills they lack, especially in reading and writing, just as they must push their non-heritage students to develop the understandable pronunciation and spontaneity in speaking that heritage learners have.

4. When dealing with a mixed class of heritage and non-heritage learners, differentiate some things—but not everything.

Dr. Carreira emphasized that differentiating some lessons for heritage learners is important, both to address their specific linguistic needs and also to allow them to connect with others from a similar background. However, she also emphasized that teachers shouldn’t feel pressured to differentiate too much: it is shared learning experiences that ultimately create a classroom community.

Read Part II: Working with OneWorld Now!’s Heritage Learners 

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