Sunday, May 8, 2011

Heritage Language Teaching

 Differentiated Instruction in Heritage Language (HL) Teaching
In one of her articles, Polinsky (2007) recounted the story of Jim, a student “at a prestigious American university.  He is planning to go to law school and has many talents: he is a member of the debate club, and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper; he plays the flute, holds numerous winning titles in wrestling, has been on the dean’s honor list since his freshmen year, and is universally liked as a charming, articulate, caring person.  He is an all-American, well-rounded guy.  Jim has a dark secret, though: he has not really spoken to his grandparents since he was five, he cannot write to them, and he cannot even sign his name” (p. 368).

“Jim’s grandparents speak no English.  Jim’s birth name is Cho Dong-In.  He is a Korean American who can barely speak in Korean”(p. 368).  In the early 21st century, about one third of incoming college students in America are like Jim.  They “speak American” and their knowledge of the language they were exposed to from birth can range from limited to nonexistent (Polinsky, 2007, p.369).

Heritage language (HL) is the language spoken by the children of immigrants or by those who immigrated to a country when young. HL can be refugee, and indigenous languages, as well as former colonial languages. HL is also referred to as “minority language” or “community language”(Pérez, 2010, p.71).  Thirty years ago, HL speakers were called semispeakers or incomplete acquirers (Polinsky, 2007).  The U.S. as a country conducts bilingual education in a way that reflects an underlying theory that there is “something wrong with language minority students and that they need to be fixed through compensatory types of programs” (Pérez, 2010, p.72).  However, with the use of the term “heritage language” appeared 10 years ago, and the progress of the in-depth study on heritage language teaching and learning, a shift of attitudes toward HL and HL learners is called for.  Researchers advocated that it is time to stop viewing language minority students as deficient or academically unmotivated, and it is time to start valuing their HL skills as assets that contribute to our classrooms, communities and country (Pérez, 2010).  Although HL speakers’ learning experiences of their HL might be incomplete or interrupted, when being put in the same classroom as non HL learners, the linguistic advantages of HL learners will still be able to place them years ahead of non-HL learners.  For example, if our country and government needs some people with Arabic language proficiency to work in foreign affairs in the Middle East, teaching the HL speakers of Arabic and help them reach high proficiency will take shorter time than teaching other learners from the scratch.  Polinsky (2007) proposed that HL speakers are an underutilized national resource in the U.S. and it was an exciting and daunting task for educators to formulate the “proper” instruction in the classroom.

As a long-term foreign language teacher, I have observed how HL speakers can easily excel their non HL peers in the same language classroom, and how individually diverse the HL speakers learning experiences and needs were.  As a part-time teacher at several community-based Chinese HL schools, I also observed the strong contrast between immigrant parents’ and their children’s attitudes toward HL maintenance.  When the parents usually held positive attitudes toward HL learning and make efforts to help the children maintaining the HL, the younger generation failed to recognize the necessity and importance of retaining their HL. The lack of support from the mainstream education system, the strong trend of assimilation to English language among immigrant families might have contributed to the HL’s being ignored.  But at the level of classroom, is there anything that the classroom teacher can do to enhance the HL learning?  On the other hand, the HL learners are not a homogenous group. The HL speakers’ learning experiences and language skills may vary diversely from individual to individual even within the same generation.  How to meet each individual’s needs in a mix-ability classroom?   I am trying to seek answers from differentiated instruction.

Differentiated Instruction in HL Teaching (Outline)

Differentiation Strategies:

1.               Use literature to engage HL learners and teach them the structures of their HL.  Critically analyze the moral and standards conveyed by the texts in relation to the mainstream value.

2.               Utilize the HL in conjunction with English; work on the relationship between languages.

3.               Use electronic media and computer-based instructional materials.

4.               Make the HL learning relative to their real-life circumstances, to the mainstream culture to which they are exposed to.

5.               Respect the non-standard form of language while encouraging students to become proficient in the standard form of language.

6.               HL literacy instruction.  From “bilingual” to “biliteracy”.

7.               One-on-one coaching for students.  Connect the HL learning to community.


Often entwined with immigrants’ ethnic identity and subject to the assimilative forces of English language in the mainstream education system, the questions in the field of HL teaching and learning has been complicated and not been fully explored.  Study showed that HL learners at college level are highly self-determined and motivated to retain their HL, either because they consider HL as a central part of their identity, they want to polish their language skills to be more competitive in the work market, or they feel that it their responsibility to pass their culture and heritage to the next generation.  Contrarily, HL learners of younger age are still experiencing considerable HL loss and are not motivated to maintain their HL although their parents made great efforts and even became the HL teachers of the children. The main factor that affects immigrant children attitudes toward HL is the pressures of linguistic and cultural conformity in the school environments, especially as the children enter adolescence. The younger HL speakers’ perception of HL being “useless” and “unprofitable” also reveals a lack of support for HL learning in the mainstream American schools and in the larger society (Zhang, 2009).

To reverse the reality that HL teaching and learning is ignored in the U.S., policy changes are needed at both national and district level.  But in the classroom practice of HL teachers, they can seek help from differentiated instruction to engage the younger HL learners and increase their motivation to learn.  For teachers of the mainstream classroom, one advice they can take home is that when possible, praise the HL skills of minority students and give them credit for keep learning their HL.

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