Skip Navigation

Language Ideologies and the Teaching of Heritage Languages

Guadalupe Valdés, Stanford University

The Study of Language Ideology

Within recent years, a number of researchers (e.g., Woolard 1998) have suggested that the study of language beliefs, representations and assumptions is important because it allows us to understand how such ideologies mediate meanings for social purposes, how everyday interactions in institutional settings reproduce and legitimate the social order, and how deeper messages about how the world operates are co-constructed and conveyed. Arguing that ideologies of language are not about language alone, Woolard (1998, 3) maintains that these beliefs enact ties of language to identity and underpin "the very notion of person and the social group, as well as such fundamental social institutions as religious ritual, child socialization, gender relations, the nation-state, schooling, and law."

Research on Language Ideologies within Spanish Departments

Drawing from work carried out by Phillips (1998), which argued that some institutional settings (e.g., educational settings, media production enterprises) are centrally involved in the production of state hegemony, recent work on ideologies of language in Spanish departments (Valdés et al. in press) maintains that views about non-English languages that are part of the American cultural dialogue contribute in important ways to the disinterest exhibited by most monolingual American students toward acquiring foreign language proficiencies and to the attitudes of immigrant-origin students toward their heritage languages. Focusing on a total of five different departments of Spanish, Valdés et al. (in press) report that they uncovered a dominant discourse constructed around the notion of the monolingual, educated native speaker and strong beliefs about correct and appropriate language that helped justify the place and status of members of the department. Beliefs about language that were articulated by members of these departments revealed strong negative evaluations of the Spanish spoken by US Latinos. US Latinos, in turn, expressed strong resentments about the evaluation of their Spanish by members of the department. The discourse surrounding the notion of the monolingual, educated native speaker permeated all seemingly neutral departmental interactions. Both native speakers and foreign language learners expressed a fear of language transfer and contamination, of diminished strengths in one language if another was used well, and a sense of loss of native-speaker legitimacy if English was spoken too well. The term bilingual, moreover, was used narrowly to describe rare instances of equivalent proficiencies in two languages or employed as a dismissing euphemism for US Latinos. Everyday interactions in the department transmitted consistent messages to students: Monolingual-like behavior in Spanish is the ideal, and few students not natively born to the language achieve this standard. US Latinos face greater difficulties than foreign language learners in acquiring the types of Spanish valued by the department.

Language Ideologies and Research Priorities

For the HL teaching profession, the research conducted by Valdés et al. suggests that ideologies about monolingualism and bilingualism within institutions of higher education and more specifically within departments of foreign languages relate in important and yet unexpected ways to nationalist ideologies about language. It is important to examine these settings because, as Woolard (1999) has pointed out, the understanding of both language maintenance and language shift requires more than the traditional socio-psychological study of individual attitudes or the macro-sociological study of events. Similarly, the understanding of attitudes toward the acquisition of non-dominant languages requires more than the study of instrumental versus integrative motivation. Both require the examination of the inculcation of hegemonic beliefs about both monolingualism and bilingualism as they are encountered in seemingly neutral and even counter-hegemonic activities and practices.

Unfortunately, to date, academic departments in institutions of higher education have received very little attention by researchers. As Wisniewski ( 2000) points out, those who study educational institutions have decided to avert their gaze and to pretend that there is not much that they can learn about education in these instructional settings. For those concerned about the study and teaching of HLs, however, the study of language departments in American universities and the examination of the ways in which departmental ideologies and practices interconnect with the broader social, political, and economic elements that are present in both the university and national contexts will directly contribute to our understanding of the role that higher education can or cannot play in the intergenerational transfer of HLs. Particular attention needs to be directed at the following questions.

1. What is the language background of members of foreign language departments?

  • How many individuals are native speakers of the language who were raised in foreign countries? How many of these individuals speak English fluently? What is their position in the departmental hierarchy?
  • How many individuals are non-native speakers who learned the language as a second language? What levels of proficiency have they attained in the language? What is their position in the departmental hierarchy?
  • How many individuals are heritage speakers (American born bilinguals)? Are these individuals considered native or non-native by members of the department? What is their position in the departmental hierarchy?
  • What role do language ideologies play in the establishment of the departmental hierarchy?

2. What sets of beliefs about language do faculty and students articulate in departments of foreign languages?

  • What views do they have about the type of language that should be taught in the department?
  • What views do they have about speakers of different types of language (e.g., standard language, colloquial language, popular jargon, regional varieties, class varieties)?
  • What kinds of understandings do they have about societal and individual bilingualism?
  • To what degree are language practices in particular language departments colored by a nationalist aesthetic (Thomas 1991) that is concerned with the characteristic features of the original national language and culture?

3. What perceptions do members of the department have about heritage speakers?

  • What is their experience with heritage speakers both inside and outside the educational institution?
  • What views do they have about the barriers facing heritage students in developing and maintaining their HLs?
  • What beliefs do members of the department have about heritage speakers as future teachers of the language?

Language Resource Center