Guest Editor's Foreword
Hongyin Tao, UCLA
There seems to be a sea change taking place in attitudes toward Chinese language study. Chinese, once a less commonly taught language, has acquired elevated status because of its importance as a heritage language; nevertheless, systematic research on Chinese as a heritage language (CHL) has been lacking in many areas. We know surprisingly little, for example, about how heritage learners perceive and construct their identity and what impact questions of identity may have on the development and maintenance of CHL. Moreover, we seem to know quite a bit about the issues involved in learning Chinese as a heritage language, but have offered little in the way of effective solutions. A case in point would be that most practitioners in the CHL field recognize that reading, including character recognition, and writing are major difficulties for CHL learners, yet few approaches to this challenge have been offered. In other words, much remains to be researched and reported. Given the current burgeoning interest in Chinese across educational and non-educational sectors, more effort needs to be put into CHL research.
This special issue of the Heritage Language Journal presents a collection of three papers addressing various issues in CHL, mostly in the context of US higher learning institutions. Yun Xiao’s paper, Heritage Learners in Chinese Language Classrooms: Home Background Knowledge and Language Development, addresses the important relationship between learner background and reading. Xiao finds that heritage learners’ home language background facilitates language learning in certain linguistic aspects (e.g. listening and grammatical proficiency) to some extent, but does not necessarily result in a positive print experience or faster reading development compared with non-heritage students. An important implication of this finding, to me, is that CHL reading development should be carefully measured and fostered independent of the home background knowledge and that reading and writing pedagogies should increase their focus on the print experience and matching between speech and writing.
Heather Weger-Guntharp’s paper, Voices from the Margin: Developing a Profile of Chinese Heritage Language Learners in the FL Classroom, reveals the complexity of the multi-faceted social identities of what we call the heritage learner. She argues that terms such as HL learner encompass a complex notion, and that a proper recognition of individual learner distinctions, especially among low-proficiency learners in a university foreign language classroom setting, are essential to learner motivation and language development.
In the same vein but with a broader goal, Agnes He, in her paper Toward an Identity Theory of Development of Chinese as a Heritage Language, proposes a general theory of CHL learner identity. Her theory, which is dynamic in nature, is based on insights from a number of interacting social-cultural approaches to language (e.g., Language Socialization, Second Language Acquisition, and Conversation Analysis). She creates a three-dimensional framework (space, time and identity) to characterize the social construct of learner identity, predicting that the learner’s CHL development is closely tied to the extent to which the learner is able to develop identities and stances through communicative and interactive activities in time and space.
Finally, Michelle Fu has written a review of a Chinese language textbook written for intermediate students and heritage learners, Qin-Hong Anderson’s Masterworks Chinese Companion: Expressive Literacy through Reading and Composition (2004).
The contributors raise some fundamentally important issues to CHL, and I do hope that this issue will serve as a stepping-stone to further research in CHL as a disciplinary area.