The first conference devoted to research on heritage and community language education around the world, Friday through Sunday on campus, will feature papers, poster sessions and workshops. Colleagues from 20 countries will participate, and 300 people will attend.
In a typical language classroom setting, heritage students are analogous to gifted/talented students in a setting where work progresses at a pace that suits plodders.
If you’re a U.S.-born native speaker of English, and your parents didn’t come from another country, you probably answer without hesitation if asked what your mother tongue is. But for heritage speakers, that question is complicated. They’ve spent their lives overhearing and perhaps speaking with parents and relatives in another language, usually their parents’, or a parent’s, native language.
Educators from 20 countries working on more than 40 languages will discuss the peculiar issues of language teaching and preservation in a wide variety of local contexts, at the first International Conference on Heritage/Community Languages Feb. 19-21. The gathering will, of course, have a strong contingent of experts on languages as spoken and used in the United States.
Heritage speakers’ abilities vary: some speak English only but understand the home language, and others might speak the home language with impressive fluency but use vocabulary and grammar that don’t follow the norm. Their literacy in the heritage language may range from nonexistent to decent but is almost always deficient compared to a native speaker’s. Even if born in the U.S., they’re likely to have started life dominant in their home language. But by the time they seek out formal study in their heritage language in school or college, they’re usually dominant in English.
In a typical language classroom setting, these students are analogous to gifted/talented students in a setting where work progresses at a pace that suits plodders. Heritage speakers' abilities can be harnessed for good – with sound heritage language pedagogy that engages them intellectually, they can rocket ahead – or can go nowhere, if they’re limited to remedial work in spelling and grammar.
Developing sound pedagogy for these students is a work in progress, because heritage language education is a new field in search of theory. The Dept. of Education Title VI-funded National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC), based at UCLA’s Center for World Languages, was created in 2006 to work towards establishing a research base and to advance curriculum design, materials development, and teacher education. NHLRC’s first conference follows two earlier national conferences on heritage language education, held in 1999 and 2001. Colleagues from 19 other countries will share their research and present papers and poster sessions on 41 languages. Plenary speakers include Nancy Hornberger (University of Pennsylvania), Maria Polinsky (Harvard), and Joe Lo Bianco (University of Melbourne, Australia). Guadalupe Valdés (Stanford), whose early examinations of heritage speaker bilingualism are foundational to the modern understanding of the field, will receive the NHLRC’s first Joshua Fishman award and will give a plenary talk.
The number of heritage speakers continues to grow, and they form part of the 56% of Los Angeles residents, 42% of California residents, and nearly 20% of U.S. residents who speak another language at home. NHLRC director Olga Kagan wrote in her welcoming letter to conference participants: "The great interest this conference has received serves as evidence that the field of heritage language education is developing and rapidly coming into its own." Indeed, the conference was filled to capacity during early registration.
Two full days of presentations and poster sessions will be followed on a half-day of teaching workshops. A complete schedule is available here (pdf).