Unforeign Language

Unforeign Language

Davis Research Institute presenter Elabbas Benmamoun and director Maria Polinsky

UCLA's National Heritage Language Resource Center held its first annual conference at UC Davis in 2007. Participants laid the groundwork for K-12 and college students to advance skills in the non-English languages they learned at home.

With the right instruction, undergraduate heritage speakers can reach levels of sophistication that foreign language learners rarely know and never achieve in college.

Many UC students speak or understand a language other than English at home. They are heritage speakers, with longterm exposure to the language but often undeveloped skills since they are mostly educated in English.

Heritage speakers who want to study their language usually discover that the classes available to them are meant for foreign language students and don’t meet their needs. Classes for heritage students are hard to find and little is known about how to design them. But since 50-90% of students in some language programs are heritage speakers, how and what to teach them has become an important question for many language instructors.

In the meantime, linguistic researchers are taking increased notice of heritage speakers. Their findings are of cardinal interest to experts in the new field of heritage language studies. Olga Kagan, director of the federally funded National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC), based at UCLA, says that the field lacks a body of theory, based on research, to inform the development of materials and practices for the heritage language classroom. NHLRC was established to focus on heritage language studies, including establishing that research base.

The NHLRC held its first annual Research Institute from July 29 to August 2, 2007, at UC Davis, for experts in pedagogy and linguistics to "claim joint custody" of the field, according to Harvard linguist Maria Polinsky, the institute director. Institute participants were UC faculty with an interest in heritage language research.

Polinsky listed folk diagnoses of heritage speakers made by native speakers and others: heritage speakers are called ignorant of grammar, unteachable, language butchers, embarrassing, "cute" phrase-makers and -manglers, and, because their knowledge is home-based, "kitchen" speakers. Researchers note characteristics uncolored by value judgments, including limited vocabulary, weak morphology, interference from English, repetition, and slow speech with false starts and pauses. Based on her studies of heritage speakers across several languages, Polinsky's hypothesis is that heritage language is not frozen at the age they were when they stopped speaking, but is instead the product of reanalysis. That is, speakers attempt to make sense of what they remember from childhood, and their adult speech has its own system.

Silvina Montrul of Univerity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discussed her research comparing heritage speakers and foreign language learners against monolingual native speakers of Spanish. Montrul and her colleagues have found that while foreign and heritage speakers differ from native speakers, heritage speakers are more like native speakers in several areas, including their command of grammar. Montrul has also found that heritage learners of Spanish benefit more than foreign language learners from explicit instruction and error correction.

Elabbas Benmamoun, another UIUC linguist who specializes in Arabic, discussed teaching heritage speakers of Arabic and the phenomenon of diglossia, the use of two variants—the standard and a dialect—by the same speakers for different purposes. Heritage speakers are likely to know only a dialect. Benmamoun illustrated the need to know both systems and also to use them in combination; for example, contracts, resumes, and reports are written in standard Arabic, but businesspeople negotiate in dialect.

Olga Kagan and Maria Carreira (CSULB) discussed their survey of heritage speakers studying their language in college. Some highlights: students reported that they do not read much in their heritage languages, but want to. And they do read in English, challenging another folk notion that students do not read. Self-identification appears to be important for heritage speakers: 68 percent of students surveyed chose a hyphenated label such as "Chinese-American" to describe themselves, rather than simply "American" or "Chinese."

Cecelia Colombi, a UC Davis Spanish professor, talked about heritage speakers' needs to learn professional registers of speech, expand literacy, develop awareness of language use, and use language "as a meaning-making resource." Colombi described an assignment addressing all those needs: students interview an older speaker of the target language, then transcribe the interview, and finally write a formal essay about it. Each stage calls on increasingly abstract and academic vocabulary and helps students distinguish between registers that are equally valuable but different.

At the institute's conclusion, participants presented ideas for heritage language research projects. Proposals included studies of specific heritage language groups, error analysis at various stages of instruction, tracking linguistic behavior in completing computerized assignments, family case studies, a corpus of heritage narrative, and studies of heritage speakers' cognate knowledge.

Miriam Lam of UC Riverside previewed an online textbook for Vietnamese heritage speakers created by a team across UC campuses, funded by the UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching, which joined with the UCLA Center for World Languages in the original grant application to found the NHLRC.

Olga Kagan says that with the right instruction, undergraduate heritage speakers can reach proficiency levels that foreign language learners rarely know and never achieve in college. That kind of knowledge can reward speakers with career potential and a rich intellectual life.

Another benefit of heritage language instruction is that it can strengthen family ties, a powerful motivator for seeking out classes according to Kagan and Carreira’s survey subjects. Polinsky, a former UCSD faculty member, founded a program there that offers heritage instruction in several languages. She read a letter she received from a woman whose granddaughter had not been able to speak with her before studying Vietnamese in the program. The grandmother wrote: “Thank you for giving us an opportunity to know each other.”

Abstracts, presentations, and other materials from the 2007 Research Institute are available at http://www.international.ucla.edu/languages/nhlrc/2007summer/.


The writer of this article is managing editor of the Heritage Language Journal and an editor for LA Language World, both published by the UCLA Center for World Languages.

Published: Tuesday, September 04, 2007