Working with OWN’s Heritage Learners, Part II

Four Lessons from the Heritage Language Symposium, and how they apply to OWN’s East African students

In a city that is 70% white, OWN works primarily with students of color; in our Arabic program, a majority of students are of Muslims of East African heritage.  These students present their own opportunities and challenges as Arabic learners that are very different from programs that work either with students who have little prior exposure to Arabic, or with Arab students who grow up speaking a dialect of Arabic at home.   In a previous post, I shared some lessons from the Heritage Language Symposium led by Dr. Maria Carreira at the University of Washington.  In this post, I’ll discuss how these lessons apply—or not—to the East African who are a majority of Arabic learners at OWN.

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.


Almost all of our East African students fall under the broad, cultural definition of heritage language learners: they have no ability to communicate in Arabic when they enter OWN’s classes, but they do bring an understanding of Islam and Islamic culture that is an important gateway to understanding Arab culture (while not all Arabs are Muslims, even Arab Christians see Islamic culture as an important part of Arab heritage and civilization). Many have also had exposure to the Arab world, having either by having spent time there themselves as children or via family members who worked in Arab countries. Perhaps most importantly, these students bring a deep understanding of what it means to live between multiple cultures—and learn about a new culture—that takes English-only students much longer to grasp.

At the same time, teaching heritage learners who fall under the “broad” definition means that there are far fewer resources available to support them: the majority of resources for teaching heritage learners in all languages, from workshops to workbooks, are aimed at those who fit the linguistic definition of heritage learners who enter with some conversational proficiency in the target language.

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

Because Arabic is not their families’ native language, East African students have less of an emotional connection to Arabic than to their home languages—often Somali, Oromo, or Tigrinya, but sometimes English for students whose families have been in the US for longer.  At the same time, they do face the issues of biculturality that all heritage speakers face, and OWN provides a space for these students to connect and spend time with others who are going through a similar experience.  And while finding the same sort of materials for Arabic that Dr. Carreira presented for Spanish heritage learners—moving, short pieces available in Spanish and English written by Hispanic American authors—at a suitable proficiency level in Arabic would be almost impossible, OWN’s Arabic teachers can provide space for students to share information about their home cultures and recognize biculturalism as a strength.

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

East African learners of Arabic actually turn this equation on its head.  Many have a strong grasp of the mechanics of the Arabic alphabet from weekend classes in reading the Qur’an, leaping past a barrier that stymies some non-heritage learners.  Their exposure, via the Qur’an, is to language that is far removed from the realm of everyday life and indeed an example of high poetic language in Arabic.  Although these classes give many of these learners near-native pronunciation in Arabic, OWN teachers push them to develop their speaking skills because reading and writing comes more easily to them, and challenge them to refine their knowledge of the Arabic alphabet, just as they challenge non-heritage students to grasp the basics.

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

OWN does provide a context for East African students to connect and share their experiences with others who struggle with similar issues of identity, but our most important work is done introducing students from different communities to each other and breaking down some of the geographic and cultural walls that divide Seattle to create a larger community of learners and leaders.

Read Part I: Four Lessons from the Heritage Language Symposium  

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