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Local US Languages and How to Teach Them
In a Royce Hall conference room, Yoruba instructors Moses Adegbola of UCLA (left) and Adeolu Ademoyo of Cornell University talk about how to teach reading and other advanced skills to Yoruba speakers.

Local US Languages and How to Teach Them

Schools and colleges don't always ask who their students are when deciding which languages to teach and how to design curricula. Seeking to remedy that, UCLA's National Heritage Language Resource Center hosts a week-long training workshop for language instructors and K-12 administrators from across the country.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

Representing about 10 target languages and a dozen U.S. states from Alaska to Florida, 25 educators came to the UCLA campus July 18–23 to think about the distinct and varied needs of students who began learning languages in their homes rather than their schools. Participants included not only schoolteachers and college lecturers, but also four K-12 school administrators.

"I'm getting know-how. I'm getting strategies. I'm getting the opportunity to collaborate," said Leonard Fitts, interim superintendent of schools in Camden, New Jersey.

Atef Nazir of the State Department (left) and teachers discuss what young U.S. Arabic and Persian speakers know and don't know.

Atef Nazir of the U.S. State Department and other workshop participants compare notes on Arabic and Persian students' skills.

The federally funded STARTALK initiative, which focuses on languages seen as critical to national security, cosponsored the UCLA workshop with the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC), which is based on campus and directed by UCLA Professor Olga Kagan. CSU Long Beach Professor Maria Carreira acted as lead instructor.

At the opening session, Kagan distinguished between two broad strategies to apply to instruction in a language: a "foreign language" approach for people never exposed to the language, or a "heritage language" approach for students who arrive at school with at least some listening skills and cultural knowledge learned at home.

"There is this geography of heritage language learning that wouldn't apply to foreign languages," Kagan explained. Without looking closely at demographic data for a given locale, she says, it is simply not obvious what heritage languages might be taught there.

For example, the city of Camden, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has a large Spanish-speaking community and "pockets" of spoken Russian and Japanese, while northern New Jersey is home to as many as two dozen language communities that could be served by specialized heritage language instruction, according to Fitts. New Jersey schools respond with small group instruction and advanced placement courses, within the limits of depleted budgets, he said. A goal for the future, he added, is bringing heritage language teaching to elementary schools.

William Chang of the LAUSD summarizes the district's heritage language programs at the workshop.

William Chang of the LAUSD summarizes the district's heritage language programs.

As other workshop participants broke into language-specific groups on Monday, Fitts compared notes with school administrators including William Chang, coordinator of world languages and cultures for Los Angeles's public schools.

Chang said that a heritage teaching approach has caught on in parts of the LAUSD, notably in courses offered under the label "Spanish for Spanish Speakers."

"For Spanish speakers it's taking hold, with room for improvement, like any program," said Chang. Two high schools tailor Korean courses for Korean speakers, and STARTALK supports LAUSD summer heritage courses in Arabic, he said. He noted that Chinese is making strides in the district, "but more as a foreign language than as a heritage language."

What distinguishes the heritage approach is the attention it gives to the backgrounds of students, in other words, its recognition of the strengths they display when compared with monolingual English-speaking students.

In the Monday session on "differentiated" teaching, small groups of workshop participants summarized the profiles of students in various languages, based on their experiences. A group devoted to Arabic and Persian reported that students at all levels have good listening skills and cultural knowledge, and often speak their heritage language well. As a rule they have small working vocabularies, however, and very limited reading and writing skills.

"We're dealing with languages that are not [written in] the dominant alphabet," said Therisa Rogers, an Arabic teacher at Farmington High School, in the Detroit suburb.

The group also shared an impression that Arabic-speaking parents are story-tellers, but do not read aloud to their children in the home language as much as Persian speakers. That sort of detail can affect how heritage teachers approach reading in the classroom.

Similarly, two college-level instructors of the West African language of Yoruba, Moses Adegbola of UCLA and Adeolu Ademoyo of Cornell University, reported that their American- and Nigerian-born students seldom have spent time reading in the language, and encounter it in the United States through such sources as home videos and religious events.

The Chinese teachers at the workshop included two from elementary schools, one from a high school and two college-level instructors. They discussed issues involved in bringing together students who speak multiple Chinese languages and dialects to study Mandarin Chinese in the United States.

Chinese language teachers at the workshop

Chinese language teachers at the workshop

Chinese is the only language whose presence has grown in U.S. primary and secondary schools during more than a decade of cutbacks to language offerings, partly because the Chinese government has been willing to contribute money and teachers. At the same time, the number of heritage speakers is growing quickly. Between 1980 and 2007, there was almost a four-fold increase in the number of Chinese speakers in America, a higher rate of growth than for Spanish.

But the two trends – growth of Chinese in schools and in homes – don't necessarily translate into more heritage instruction for the Chinese-American students. That requires local commitments by schools and is one of the reasons that the NHLRC includes sessions on how to find and interpret demographic data in its training workshops.

"You need to look at local conditions," Kagan said. "For teachers, if they want to advocate for a heritage language class, they need the tools. Administrators need to look at this, and I'm not sure many of them do."

To learn more about the differences between foreign and heritage language learners, take the NHLRC's self-paced tutorials.

National Heritage Language Resource Center

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