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UCLA Center Launches National Effort to Understand, Educate
UCLA Filipino/Tagalog instructor Nenita Pambid Domingo leads her class in a song about the language's grammar.

UCLA Center Launches National Effort to Understand, Educate 'Heritage' Speakers

With a new National Language Resource Center, the federal government is recognizing that the preservation of U.S. language communities will not be accomplished with approaches aimed at monolingual Americans.

Tagalog was part of Chris's identity; Ryan could talk on the telephone; Elzie simply listened to others at home.

The two dozen students in this quarter's Section 1 of Introductory Filipino/Tagalog at UCLA all grew up in California, all have at least one parent of Filipino descent, and all heard the language at home. It's a typical class for Philippine-born instructor Nenita Pambid Domingo. UCLA's Tagalog students are "99 percent" heritage learners, she says, and members of the remaining 1 percent often enroll because of "romantic entanglements" with Tagalog speakers.

A similar situation holds for many other languages that are less commonly taught at colleges and universities–that is, they are also heritage languages because their acquisition by students begins in homes and communities, not the classroom. Meanwhile, the peculiar (and varying) pedagogical needs of heritage learners must also be addressed in popular language programs such as Spanish.

Although the issue has been around for decades, materials and agreed-upon methods for heritage teaching are lacking to this day, according to UCLA's Olga Kagan, director of a new federally funded center for heritage language education. In U.S. classrooms, only Spanish has been taught to native speakers for more than a few years, and even in that case, says Maria Carreira, a linguistics professor at California State University, Long Beach, who is working closely with Kagan, "the number and variety of texts for Spanish speakers pales in comparison to those available for non-natives." Worse, she says, there are no training manuals or programs for heritage language instructors.

One of 15 U.S. centers charged with setting standards for teaching languages, the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) seeks to fill these gaps. The NHLRC was launched this summer when UCLA's Center for World Languages (CWL, also directed by Kagan) and the UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching won a four-year Education Department grant, worth $326,000 per year, to oversee nine major projects in the emergent field.

The ambitious near-term goals of the NHLRC include the creation of 1) a database tracking where certain U.S. immigrant and refugee communities live, with analysis of their demographics and case studies of how minority languages are passed on to new generations, 2) a generic framework for the design of heritage language curricula that takes diversity both among and within groups into account, and 3) a yearly research institute, or symposium of scholars, for the study of heritage language knowledge and loss across languages, to guide the development of course materials and teacher training.

To Paraphrase Tolstoy

According to Kagan, the impetus to preserve heritage languages comes variously from students, their nuclear and extended families, and their communities. For example, many of UCLA's 2,000 Korean American undergraduates at some point develop an interest in South Korean popular culture, while a Chinese American student may decide to pursue business opportunities in his parents' or grandparents' home country. For Armenian immigrants, the memory of the 1915–18 genocide and the desire to preserve traditional culture drive collective efforts to preserve the language (among the most spoken in metropolitan Los Angeles). Russian parents unfailingly observe the inadequacy of translations of nineteenth-century novels such as Anna Karenina, and may view the Russian language as key to their children's cultural awareness.

Families and communities can also impede language preservation. For example, says Domingo, Filipino American students who formally take up the language more confidently spoken by their parents and grandparents may do so without encouragement from home. A generation ago they faced active resistance from parents concerned about a legacy of discrimination. (And that's Tagalog–the dominant national language of the Philippines along with American-imposed English. The islands' important regional tongues, though spoken around L.A., are scarcely taught at all.)

Foreign language learners are all alike. Every unhappy heritage language learner is unhappy in her own way.

The truism will hold even within a single U.S. language community. Domingo's students may have a lot in common, but their abilities and needs vary surprisingly. Chris Torralba, a third-year undergraduate, says he spoke a lot of Tagalog before class began this fall. His parents always "thought that the language should be a part of who I am." Ryan Ruiz, also in his third year, is not so emphatic, but as a child he could conduct phone conversations in the language. Meanwhile, Elzie Velasco, another third-year, overheard her family but did not speak. Fourth-year student Athenna Peralta was born in the Philippines and brought at age two to the United States, where she has lost a great deal in spite of hearing Tagalog at home.

According to Domingo, any of these students can speak the language fairly well after a year of coursework. Learning the grammar is often a greater challenge; there detachment helps, and second language learners have a slight advantage.

A heritage student may appear to be, and may be, fluent in a language for many purposes but turn mute when conversation proceeds beyond a repertory of everyday, home-centered contexts, Kagan says. Traditional written and oral exams don't capture such a person's strengths and weaknesses. That's one more in the bevy of shortcomings that she wants the new language resource center to address.

Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Armenian is the third most spoken language in metropolitan Los Angeles. U.S. Census data from 2000 does not support that claim for Los Angeles County or for neighboring counties. According to the Census, Armenian is the sixth most spoken language in Los Angeles County, following English, Spanish or Spanish Creole, Chinese, Tagalog, and Korean.