Terry Wiley describes the Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket in Chandler, Ariz., as a "United Nations of food." The products and multilingual labels from Latin American, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, in addition to Asia, are evidence of the diversity near Phoenix and Arizona State University, where Wiley teaches.

Wiley, who has been working with UCLA faculty members on heritage language issues since 1999, got interested in Lee Lee as a place where languages meet. It's not just the conversations and the message boards used by Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean immigrants that attracted him. He and co-researcher Gerda de Klerk realized that with U.S. Census data they could map, within a large circle around the market, networks of churches, businesses, newsstands, and other points of interest for speakers of dozens of languages.

These language communities do not necessarily match up with neighborhoods, but they always have resources that educators can take advantage of. For example, although the relatively few immigrants from Iran are scattered throughout the Phoenix Valley, a complete Persian yellow pages is available. On satellite dishes, Persian-speaking families can pick up five major stations in the language either from Iran or from refugee populations elsewhere.

For a simple school assignment, says Wiley, have students find a Persian-speaking dentist near home. For something more complex, have advanced students of Chinese compare articles, editorials, and advertisements in local papers. Have students of Spanish look not only at telenovelas and variety shows (on the highest-rated local television networks), but at Spanish-language ephemera and Internet blogs.

"The more savvy you are with the media and the Internet and transnationality," Wiley explains, "the more creative you can be about how to connect students with the way languages are actually being used." Given technology and resources that are available right here, languages can be made "real" even for students who don't travel abroad.

At the workshop

Last month, Wiley and others working with the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) at UCLA put together a two-day workshop for college teachers trying to link their classroom activities with local communities. (Wiley supervises more than a dozen researchers at graduate and postdoctoral levels on a related NHLRC research project.) Juliana Wijaya of UCLA and Maria Carreira of CSU Long Beach discussed curricula for courses in Indonesian and Spanish involving assignments such as interviews with community members. De Klerk, one of Wiley's graduate students at ASU, explained how to analyze publicly available data on heritage communities, among other topics. Also presenting were Kathy O'Byrne, director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning, and Olga Kagan, director of the NHLRC and the UCLA Center for World Languages.

About half of the 26 workshop participants flew in from around the country. They were seeking to enhance courses in Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Czech, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, and Spanish.

In many parts of the United States, these are not foreign languages. Like other workshop participants, Anna Gasienica-Byrcyn, a Polish instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches mostly heritage learners who arrive with some proficiency. Nevertheless, she said, the schools and colleges "don't teach [Polish] as a heritage language."

Even where heritage speakers are recognized as such, teachers don't always know a lot about the communities in question. Wiley says it makes a big difference how the speakers were brought into or brought under the United States, why they came if they immigrated, and what levels of literacy community members have.

Basic facts often come as surprises to teachers, he says. For example:

  • Two-thirds of U.S. speakers of Arabic are Christians.
  • So are two-thirds of U.S. Korean speakers.
  • The Chinese government estimates that 53 percent of its people speak Mandarin, though more are literate in it. The numerous Chinese "dialects" using the same script are not mutually comprehensible. That diversity is reflected in U.S. communities.

In this country, the biggest misconception is that immigrants will resist English. Not only do they learn English willingly, says Wiley, but, sadly, the vast majority lose their ancestral languages by the third generation. Increasingly, second-generation Americans are losing their heritage languages.

Those who want to reverse the trend face major political and ideological resistance, says Wiley, lamenting that language retention is often viewed in the United States as a threat to English.

"Given all that, what we're going to look at [in the workshop] is innovation and resiliency in the face of all those challenges and some of the positive things that are happening in terms of communities and language teaching, and some of the opportunities that are there."

In addition to local successes, one bright spot is the teaching of Mandarin. The language has growing and global appeal for heritage learners, speakers of other Chinese variants, and ambitious students of all backgrounds.

"Everybody is rallying around Mandarin," he says. "I would say that we might see in another 10 years evidence that Mandarin is actually getting stronger, unless we get into some kind of political confrontation with China that's going to mess that all up."