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The Role of Schools in Language Maintenance and Shift

Reynaldo Macías, University of California, Los Angeles

The inter-generational transfer of heritage languages can be viewed in a number of significant settings and through many lenses. I would like to propose the schools as a setting and a lens that provides a view of the school as an institutional mechanism that supports or hinders this inter-generational transfer. In particular, I propose a macro look at curricular articulation of heritage language instruction K-16 and the role of teachers in this process. I suggest that this is merely one dimension of the more complex modeling of language maintenance and shift (or language demography) of these HLs. There are obviously other dimensions such as contextual issues (particularly ideologies), and the micro level issues of what goes on within classrooms. How the organizational/institutional pieces of maintaining and developing the HL through the schools across the years, amongst those who natively acquire it, is the principal focus of this question.

Research Question

What role do the schools play in assisting or hindering the inter-generational transmission of HLs in the nation?

Subsidiary questions

  • What is the scope of (heritage) language teaching and learning in the country as reflected in enrollments of bilingual education and foreign language courses?
  • What (oral and literate) proficiencies result from these forms of (heritage) language teaching?
  • What are the curricular alignments across the years (K-16) that promote or hinder HL development?
  • What specific role do teacher characteristics (membership in a HL community, proficiency in the HL, language attitudes, etc) play in the development of HL proficiency?
  • What are the effects of different types of schools (public, independent, mother-tongue schools) on the transmission of HLs?

Importance of the Question

The success of transmitting HLs intergenerationally with institutional support rests more on the policy and the arrangement of institutional parts than on the improvement of single classroom instruction. If the course of study is not taken by the students, there is no benefit derived for the transmission of the language. If the curricular articulation is such that there is no accumulated language development and improved language proficiency, then we recycle introductory levels of language teaching that do not result in maturational development and proficiency. Students learn the days of the week and "hola paco" extremely well!

Knowing how the institutional school parts are or could be organized and the impact of this organization on HL transmission and development provides for policy options as well as curricular planning that otherwise is lost to the existing curricular fragmentation of language teaching that is designed to fail the language learner. We have an occasional national survey (Branaman and Rhodes 1997) but no regular data collection on this issue. There are standards and assessments for foreign language education but there has not been adequate focus specifically on the various forms of HL teaching reflected in bilingual education and foreign language instruction. While there are national counts of speakers of non-English languages (presumed to be native speakers of these languages), we don't have a sense of how many non-native speakers of these heritage languages successfully learn these languages. I would posit that the number of non-native speakers of these languages has an effect on the maintenance and shift of these languages amongst native speakers.

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