PROMOTING HERITAGE LANGUAGES: WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
Given the state of the field, what can be done to promote languages other than English? In order for heritage languages to thrive, they should not only be valued by the ethnic communities involved, but also by English speakers in the wider society. There is a critical need to raise awareness of public school teachers and administrators of the need for heritage language education and maintenance (Compton, 2001). One way to do this is for heritage language communities to collaborate with public school systems to offer introductory language and culture classes for public school teachers as part of their professional development (Shin, 2006). In addition, teachers and administrators need to be informed about the critical importance of heritage languages in the lives of immigrant students, particularly the devastating effect on family relationships when parents and children cannot communicate with one another due to a language barrier (Fishman, 1991; Wong Fillmore, 2000). Whenever appropriate, teachers should encourage language minority parents to use their native language with their children at home.
Community-based programs can also collaborate with universities and professional organizations that value bilingualism. To illustrate, in 2005, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) organized a national public awareness campaign called “The Year of the Languages." This campaign advanced the concept that every person in the U.S. should develop proficiency in at least one language in addition to English. Each month in the yearlong event, there was a focus on a different area—such as language policy, higher education, language advocacy, heritage languages, and early language learning—with specific events reflecting the monthly focus (Cutshall, 2004/ 2005). This is a terrific example of a mutually beneficial relationship that can be had when ethnic communities work in partnership with professional organizations.
In addition, heritage organizations, businesses, and places of worship need to actively reach out to the broader community by participating in local politics, events, and area development. Heritage language schools may provide classes for non-heritage speakers in the community who may be interested in learning the language and culture. Heritage language community organizations may also make their facilities (buildings, gymnasiums, playgrounds, meeting facilities, etc.) available for use by members of the larger community for purposes other than language instruction.
In the formal school setting, apart from offering a heritage language as a foreign language subject, a more effective method may be to integrate it more fully into the regular school-day curriculum. Two-way immersion education is one form of developmental bilingual education in which English-dominant and heritage-language-dominant students are placed in the same classroom for all or most of the instructional day and are given content and literacy instruction in both languages (Christian, 2008; see also Chapter 8). Two-way programs benefit English-dominant students by giving them extensive opportunities to develop functional literacy in the target language and interact socially with native speakers of that language. Two-way programs also contribute to the maintenance and development of heritage languages for heritage- language-dominant students.
In a study of 16 elementary two-way immersion schools, Lindholm-Leary (2001) found that Spanish speakers were highly proficient in their native language through sixth grade, and had consistently higher proficiencies in Spanish than Spanish speakers in transitional bilingual programs. In another study comparing Korean speakers in three types of programs—(1) two-way immersion programs, (2) modified bilingual programs with minimal Korean language support, and (3) English-only programs—Sohn & Merrill (2008) found that two-way immersion programs provide the greatest benefit to participating students. Korean speakers in two-way programs not only develop English language skills on a par with peers in English-only programs, but also maintain and develop their Korean language skills. Although more research is needed to fully understand the long-term effects of two-way programs, they seem to hold much promise in developing bilingual competence in both majority and minority language speakers.
Advances in electronic communication may provide new opportunities for language learning as well. In her study of Korean heritage learners’ electronic literacy practices on a popular website called Cyworld.com, Jin Sook Lee (2006) shows that the online medium provided the students with authentic opportunities to use the target language within a social network of Korean speakers. She argues that the deviant language forms found in e-texts (e.g., contractions, omissions, and phonological adaptations) enable heritage language learners to engage in online interactions without the pressure of having to spell the words correctly, which is a requirement in traditional language classroom settings and a source of stress for heritage learners.
Web-based intercultural exchange programs may increase student engagement in a variety of languages. Cultura (http://cultura.mit.edu), a popular online program developed by the French program at MIT to enable cultural exchanges between American and French students, has been adapted to a number of other languages. The National Foreign Language Resource Center (NFLRC) at the University of Hawaii has offered training for language educators to create online cafes linking heritage learners of Filipino, Japanese, Samoan, and Chinese with native speakers of those languages. These programs help students to arrive at a deeper understanding of their own as well as their partner group’s cultures and learn the target language more purposefully.
Creating “a language competent society” requires a concerted effort of educators, policymakers, families, and communities. As a society, we need to realize that the languages spoken by ethnic and linguistic minorities are a national asset, a resource that must not be wasted. Students who come from homes where languages other than English are spoken should be supported to maintain those languages while learning English. And students who speak English natively should be supported to learn another language not in a superficial way, but deeply enough to develop functional competence. We need to think of bilingual proficiency not as a luxury, dispensable when there are more pressing needs, but rather as a requirement in an increasingly global world. Most other countries are already doing that. It is time that the U.S. took more proactive steps toward increasing the bilingual competence of its citizenry.