Schools Tap Talent for Home Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 02, 2003 9 min read
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Sixteen-year-old Jaynie-Ann Mayol says 9th grade Spanish was a waste of time because the class was geared to students who were learning the language from scratch.

“I already knew everything,” she said. “I could have been learning French.”

Though the U.S.-born daughter of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents became fluent in Spanish as a child, she needs help with reading and writing it. But most high school foreign-language classes focus on speaking skills.

This school year, the New Yorker transferred to the city’s Louis D. Brandeis High School in Manhattan. There, she takes a Spanish class tailored to students who speak a language other than English at home—or “heritage speakers.”

The goal of the heritage track is to build on the skills that students like Ms. Mayol have in a language other than English, and help them get educational credit for their work.

Ms. Mayol, who finds her new class much more challenging and useful, is fortunate.

Foreign-language experts say that most schools ignore the language ability of heritage speakers, and thus squander the skills of thousands of children who speak—or at least are exposed to—a language other than English at home.

They point to a 2002 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office that said globalization and the urgency of monitoring terrorist activities after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had heightened the need for people in the United States who speak foreign languages.

In addition, the study by the congressional agency found a critical lack of staff members with foreign-language skills in at least four arms of the federal government: the U.S. Army, Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI literally has stacks of documents and audio tapes waiting to be translated, the report said.

Heritage speakers are the government’s best hope for filling such needs, advocates of instruction for heritage speakers say. After all, they note, it would take hundreds of hours to get students who are starting from square one— particularly with difficult languages such as Arabic or Chinese—up to the same proficiency of many heritage speakers.

The United States, however, has no national policy for schools to capitalize on what heritage speakers know, they add.

“After 9/11, the government put out a call for heritage speakers of various languages,” said Elvira Swender, the director of professional programs for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Yonkers, N.Y. “That was a clear indication that this is a resource that has not been tapped into and not nurtured.”

Spanish for Native Speakers

Spanish, so far, is the language that most public schools have focused on if they do provide classes for heritage speakers. Nine percent of the nation’s high schools that teach foreign languages offer Spanish classes that are designed for native speakers, according to a 1997 survey by the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.

But proponents of language classes for heritage speakers say the field lacks appropriate state language tests, teacher preparation, and directives from districts or states to require the classes when schools have a critical mass of heritage speakers.

To draw attention to their cause, the Center for Applied Linguistics and the National Foreign Language Center, located at the University of Maryland College Park, have co-sponsored two conferences since 1999 aimed at mobilizing teachers of heritage speakers. (“Support for ‘Heritage Languages’ Encouraged at Conference,” Reporter’s Notebook, Oct. 30, 2002.)

“The programs are very fragile,” said Diana M. Scalera, a Spanish teacher at the 1,500-student High School for Environmental Studies here in New York City. The selective school offers classes for heritage speakers in Spanish and Polish—and, when it can find a teacher, Mandarin Chinese.

“People don’t perceive that that particular group of students needs to be served,” Ms. Scalera said. “They don’t see their language skills are valuable, and that schools have any obligation to do anything about it.”

Others say the lack of heritage-language programs is economic. Elvira Swender of the council on foreign-language teaching says such classes require more teachers, programs, and training.

“Schools have a finite number of hours in the day to provide instruction,” she said. “If schools are being pressured to produce certain outcomes and are being told they have to raise their reading scores in English and writing scores in English, their inclination would be to put more time into having students study that.”

At the same time, she said, research shows that studying two languages at once does not take anything away from children’s knowledge of one language or the other.

Historically, private schools run by immigrants have done the lion’s share of teaching children of immigrants to read and write in their native languages. In contrast, public schools have geared their foreign-language instruction to college-bound students who are learning the languages fresh.

Many public schools with hundreds of Hispanic students still assign heritage speakers to regular foreign-language classes, where, according to Ms. Scalera, they often do badly because the emphasis on basic vocabulary and grammar is such a poor match for them.

For instance, Providence, R.I.'s Central High School, where more than half the 1,600 students are Latino, doesn’t offer Spanish classes designed for heritage speakers. Providence’s two other comprehensive high schools, where at least half of their students are also Latinos, do, however.

“It’s a local decision,” said José M. González, the director of language and culture for the 27,000-student district. “There is no directive.”

The Dallas, Chicago, and Albuquerque, N.M., school districts, meanwhile, also have some schools that offer Spanish classes for heritage speakers, as well as Advanced Placement Spanish classes.

‘Different Needs’

The Spanish department at Louis D. Brandeis High in New York provides three tracks of Spanish: one for recent Spanish-speaking immigrants, one for students learning Spanish as a foreign language, and a third for heritage speakers.

“The kids have different needs,” said Tena A. Cohen, a Spanish teacher at the school. “I love the fact that we have three different tracks. It’s appropriate. I feel frustrated if a kid is misplaced.”

The Spanish programs at Brandeis have remained strong while the school has gone through hard times.

Two years ago, after the school’s average daily attendance dropped to 69 percent and its annual dropout rate topped 12.4 percent, Brandeis was put on a state list of low-performing schools. The school, which has 2,250 students, most of whom are Latino or African-American, received a new crop of administrators, who improved those indicators significantly. This school year, Brandeis was taken off the list.

In a recent class of “Level 6" Spanish for heritage speakers at Brandeis High, the most advanced class offered by the school, teacher Mary L. Bornstein led 19 students in exercises related to a short story, “El limpiabotas” (“The Shoeshiners”), by Spanish author Pedro Espinosa Bravo. About half the students in the class are U.S.-born. The rest are immigrants from El Salvador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.

The teacher, who isn’t a native speaker of Spanish, conducted the class mostly in Spanish with an occasional aside in English. She called on students to rephrase several expressions in the short story because the vocabulary wasn’t familiar to everyone.

But when it came time to rephrase various expressions that use verbs, some students confused verb tenses.

The gaps in those students’ knowledge correspond with teachers’ descriptions of heritage speakers: While they may speak fluently, they lack academic vocabulary and a knowledge of grammar.

Sorinel Morel, a junior in the Level 6 class, said it’s a good idea for schools to have a special language track for heritage speakers because “people who are familiar with the language can extend it to a higher level.”

It’s only at school that Ms. Morel, who was born in the United States to Dominican immigrants, has learned how to read and write in Spanish. In junior high, she learned the Spanish alphabet and other basics in classes that mixed heritage speakers with students learning Spanish as a foreign language. She said her reading and writing have really improved since 9th grade, when she was placed in the heritage track at Brandeis.

“Knowing more than one language—it’s good,” she said, “You can communicate with more people. You can get around better.”

Ms. Cohen, who isn’t a native speaker of Spanish, is a strong advocate of the heritage track. She believes that New York state has ignored heritage speakers.

The state regents’ test in Spanish, she says, was created for students who have learned Spanish as a foreign language, and she contends it’s a joke for heritage speakers. It uses irrelevant examples, such as scenarios in which students are living with a “host family” in a Spanish-speaking country, she says, and is too easy for students with prior knowledge of the language.

“The fact that the [U.S.] Census can come out and say that Hispanics are the largest minority and we’re still giving this exam is wacko,” the teacher said.

Advanced Placement

An educational framework is at hand that isn’t designed for heritage speakers, but that educators have found works well in providing a curriculum for them—especially in Spanish.

Foreign-language experts say the Advanced Placement curricula and tests in Spanish language and literature are some of the best educational tools available on a national level to motivate heritage speakers to improve their Spanish. A score of at least a 3 out of a possible 5 on those exams often translates into college foreign-language credit.

Brandeis High School isn’t currently offering AP Spanish classes, but plans to next school year.

The heritage track for Spanish-speakers at New York’s High School for Environmental Studies, however, is built around AP Spanish courses.

After one year in a Spanish class at the school emphasizing reading and writing, heritage speakers can move on to Advanced Placement courses in the subject. About 95 percent of heritage speakers from the AP classes who take the AP Spanish-language test score a 3 out of a possible 5, according to Ms. Scalera. About 70 percent of the school’s heritage speakers who take the AP Spanish-literature exam, which is more difficult than the language exam, get at least a 3.

There is another obstacle to drawing students into heritage-language programs.

Spanish teachers at Brandeis observe that many heritage speakers struggle with their cultural identities, and that some are ashamed of their families’ language.

“For a lot of them, they don’t want to be known as bilingual,” said Ms. Cohen. “They’re afraid they aren’t going to be able to be integrated socially if they are bilingual.”

On the other end of the spectrum are students who are proud of their bilingualism.

Jaynie-Ann Mayol, the Brandeis sophomore, for instance, generally prefers to speak English, but goes to a Spanish Mass at her Catholic church on Sundays and says she sometimes “pops into Spanish” with her friends.

“I want to be a police officer along my area, and along my area there are lots of Dominicans,” she added. “I can help them out.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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