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Directions in Research: Intergenerational Transmission of Heritage Languages

Editors: Russell N. Campbell, University of California, Los Angeles Donna Christian, Center for Applied Linguistics


The "intergenerational transmission" of heritage languages (HLs) is crucial to the vitality of heritage language communities (especially for indigenous communities, where immigration is not a source of new speakers). We know, however, that HLs in the United States often do NOT survive well from one generation to the next as the shift to English takes place. In conjunction with the Second National Conference on Heritage Languages in America, a small group of researchers met to discuss priorities for research on intergenerational transmission of languages. Each of the ten researchers who participated prepared a short paper, posing research questions with some commentary to guide future research. Those papers form the major part of this article, covering topics related to language ecological patterns (in communities, families, and institutions), language ideology, measurement issues, and literacy.


Heritage languages in the United States are sustained and grow in several ways. One vehicle is through newcomers who immigrate to this country where their language resources refresh heritage communities. Heritage languages (HLs) also grow through transfer of language knowledge from one generation to the next within communities and families. This "intergenerational transmission" of HLs is crucial to the vitality of heritage language communities (especially for indigenous communities, where immigration is not a source of new speakers). We know, however, that HLs in the United States often do NOT survive from one generation to the next (or they gradually, or not so gradually, diminish). Veltman (1983) and other demographers note a typical three-generation shift to English in heritage language families. Among immigrant language minorities the characteristic pattern has been that the first generation acquires some English while remaining strongest in the native tongue; the second generation usually becomes bilingual with more developed literacy skill in English because English is the language of instruction; and the third generation has a tendency to become English speaking with little or no capability in the language of their grandparents. Some say this pattern is inevitable in this country under current (ideological and social) conditions. The pattern is not evidenced in all communities, of course, but it is pervasive. We need to understand what contributes to or impedes transfer of language from one generation to another, so that, where possible, HL maintenance and development can be better supported.

In October 2002, in conjunction with the Second National Conference on Heritage Languages in America, a small group of researchers came together for a day to discuss the priorities for research needed to address the question of intergenerational transmission of languages.(1) As noted at the meeting, important insights into language loyalty and language shift in the United States are available from investigators such as Fishman (1966, 1991), Veltman (1983) and Kloss (1998), but much more remains to be learned about the mechanisms of and influences on intergenerational transfer. The goal of the discussion was to bring together multiple perspectives on the problem and to pose a set of research questions with some commentary to guide future research. Our distinguished invited participants were asked to generate the kinds of research questions that need to be defined and addressed and that might, in some instances, help break this unfortunate chain that leads to the ultimate loss of huge national, community, and personal resources in the form of heritage languages.

The ten researchers who participated each prepared a short paper on some aspect of intergenerational transfer of HLs. They brought drafts to the meeting and then revised them in light of the comments made. Those short papers form the major part of this article. Although the topics covered in the papers encompass diverse perspectives and themes, during the discussion, four primary categories, or clusters, of research directions emerged. These clusters are elaborated by Joseph Lo Bianco in the next section. Following that commentary are the ten short papers.

This important topic deserves attention from current and future researchers. Our hope is that the agenda presented here will lead to many valuable public and private research and development projects, and that what is learned as a result will help future generations conserve and transfer the rich heritage language resources they possess.

Clusters of Research Areas

Joseph Lo Bianco
Language Australia

The discussion of researchable fields related to intergenerational transfer of heritage languages led to the identification of four clusters or topic categories. These are not suggested to be exhaustive in any way, but they organize the topics covered in this article fairly well. Some of the short papers focus primarily on one or another of the areas; others range across several.

Language Ecological Patterns

For HL students, the varying communicative loads carried by English, HL, and other languages used or learned by them (or required of them by education institutions) constitute the linguistic profile of their lives. For the HL, in particular, this representation reflects degrees, rate and depth of language shift (with total language extinction its extreme end) or maintenance.

The cluster of issues within the rubric of the ecology of languages covers (among many other issues) the role of the school system and other institutions, the historical experiences of particular language communities, the unique circumstances involved in the adoption by some communities or individuals of proxy HLs as part of the complex multiple identities of contemporary life, and the specifiable impact of a language ecological pattern over the life cycle of individuals and families. This cluster also includes the understandings of proficiency that might emerge from community-based notions of correctness and from norm setting in complex sociolinguistic contexts of multiple language knowledge, multilingual code-switching practices, and multiple local identities. Identified as particularly relevant to researching this cluster of variables is the collection of personal and familial biographies.

A discrete component of the ecology of HLs concerns the infrastructures within specific communities that are entrusted with HL revitalization or preservation and their relation with the institutions of mainstream society (e.g. the schools). The particularities and dynamics of local, social, and political conditions in specific communities need to be described and compared so that differential cultural evaluations of HL and other factors that promote or impede successful intergenerational HL retention can be better understood. Researchable features of a broad language ecology pattern that were identified included: residential settlement patterns; concentrations of speakers and the proportion of youth; community institutional density; frequency of encounters with naturalistic use of the HL; and community control of children's socialization.

Under the rubric of language ecology and its impact on HL issues, specific fields nominated for research attention included: the shifting kinds of identities as invoked by language use and learning; the re-acquisition a HL; the identity impact on the learner and his/her social network of affiliation; and descriptive accounts of the genres of literacy and discourses of belonging particular to individual communities and their community schools or cultural settings where HL learning is encouraged, or HL use occurs.

Language Ideologies

Intergenerational transmission of HLs is clearly affected by language ideologies as they interact with the specific circumstances and prospects of HL acquisition, maintenance, and re-acquisition. We need to understand the ways in which some ideologies become hegemonic, or sustain that status, and how ideologies of language operate in specific contexts, differently or similarly for different languages. A key question concerns how language-specific ideologies, or specific linguistic cultures (Schiffman 1996) relating to particular languages, affect practice in our schools and universities and how these in turn impact on the learning, loss, re-acquisition, literacy elaboration, or community-appropriate proficiency of HLs in mainstream institutions.

Ideologies of language are intimately connected with culture ideologies and histories of given language communities. How these relate to institutional discourses, as represented in the policies and practices of such institutions, requires examination of these interconnections. The communicative expectation of young people involves at least English and English literacy, academic language competence and attitudes toward the study of foreign languages, as well as knowledge about language in general. The influence of the dominant mainstream expectation, a wider language ideology, may serve to repress interest and motivation in HL, especially indigenous HL, with respect to English, public culture in American society, and citizenship expectations.

In the discussion, a number of the questions identified for research related to the operation of language ideologies, in particular school practices, in the articulation between schools and other institutions (such as the labor market and higher education) and between HL speaking families. These contexts ( community, school, work) form the major settings for socialization of young HL speakers, and it is important to understand how these various phases and segments of socialization articulate and how their messages become internalized by HL communities as hegemonic patterns.

Under the rubric of ideology and its impact on HL issues, specific nominations for research attention were examinations of language policies, comparatively over time and across different state and national contexts.


A cluster of factors related to measurement was a recurring theme of research identified as important. In order for research on HLs to be feasible and valid, it must be possible to measure HL ability in a valid and reliable manner. Existing language assessments do not discriminate among aspects of proficiency that are relevant to many HL speakers. For example, a common profile of an HL speaker includes very high levels of oral proficiency with more limited skills in literacy. Few assessments extend to these high levels of oral proficiency. Furthermore, HL speakers may have a range of dialects of the HL in their repertoire that are not recognized by existing assessments. The field needs measures of proficiency attainment that are both situationally sensitive and relevant for mainstream institutional use. The notion of measurement engages with a variety of important issues, including: community authenticity; norm setting and 'policing'; purism in use and code switching; and settings, contexts and environments for the display of particular kinds of HL mastery or use. For mainstream institutional use, measurements need to predict and describe language skills in fair and valid ways that are helpful for tracking, placement, and for the completion of requirements of those institutions.


The specific impact of literacy attainment and the pattern of community literacy practices constitute a specific cluster of research topics and issues. Biliteracy in relation to HL practices requires attention to Hornberger and Skilton-Sylvester (2000) and Hornberger's (2002) four nested and interconnected components of continua for literacy, viz, Context, Content, Media and Development. This notion of continua of biliteracy usefully organizes researchable questions in relation to each other in an ecological framework for community understanding, educational intervention and social practices. Contexts are framed by level of specificity, between micro and macro, by oral and literate continua, and by literate capability in one or more languages. Content describes elements of majority/minority, vernacular-oral/formal literate, and levels and degrees of contextualization. Media frames simultaneous/successive exposure, similarity/dissimilarity in structure and divergence/convergence in scripts.

It is inevitable that literate practice will be involved in HL attainment, re-acquisition or transmission beyond the intimate settings of home and immediate family with the young. Its relation to subsequent literacy, English and third languages is also a field of considerable HL research importance.


Paper #1

Learning from History
Terrence Wiley
Arizona State University

Paper #2

External Pressures on Families
Lily Wong Fillmore
University of California, Berkeley


The Role of Schools in Language Maintenance and Shift
Reynaldo Macías
University of California, Los Angeles


Saturday-School Participation, Ethnic Identity and Japanese Language Development
Kiyomi Chinen and G. Richard Tucker
Carnegie Mellon University


The Role of Parents' Knowledge about Bilingualism in the Transmission of Heritage Languages
Sarah J. Shin
University of Maryland, Baltimore County


Native American Heritage Languages
Christine P. Sims
University of New Mexico


Language Ideologies
Norma González
University of Utah


Language Ideologies and the Teaching of Heritage Languages
Guadalupe Valdés
Stanford University


Research Priorities: Heritage Languages in Policy Texts
Joseph Lo Bianco
Language Australia


Biliteracy and Heritage Languages
Nancy H. Hornberger
University of Pennsylvania


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1. We are grateful to the University of Maryland for supporting this meeting and to the organizers of the conference, the Center for Applied Linguistics and the National Foreign Language Center, for facilitating meeting arrangements. In particular, the conributions of Scott McGinnis, Catherine Ingold, and Joy Peyton were greatly appreciated. We also extend our thanks to Kay Moon, of the University of Maryland, College Park, who served as recorder for the meeting and provided a very helpful summary of the discussion.(BACK)

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