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Maryland Tackles Ways to Tap Into ‘Heritage’ Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 10, 2009 3 min read
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While other states have enacted policies to discourage students from building on their native-language skills, Maryland has completed an audit of the opportunities the state has to leverage the “heritage language” skills of its residents.

Heritage speakers have been exposed to or speak a language other than English at home.

The Task Force for the Preservation of Heritage Language Skills, which was established by the Maryland General Assembly last year, presented a report to Gov. Martin O’Malley and the legislature Feb. 26 with recommendations for how the state can better support the use of native languages other than English. Lawmakers in Maryland are predominantly Democratic.

Maryland is “uniquely positioned to take a leadership role” in supporting heritage speakers to meet the foreign-language needs of business and government, in part because bilingual speakers in the state are very well educated, says the report. Maryland ranked third of 50 states and the District of Columbia in its share of foreign-born people with at least a bachelor’s degree in 2006, says the report.

“We know these folks are important to us, and we don’t want these language skills to go away—and without intervention, they will,” said Catherine W. Ingold, the director of the National Foreign Language Center, a research institute at the University of Maryland, and the chairwoman of the 20-member task force.

No Extra Money

She said she was impressed by the statements of various Maryland agencies and sectors on the value of heritage languages. “I’ve been following the issue of heritage languages in the United States since the late 1990s,” Ms. Ingold said. “Often you encounter a brick wall of: ‘We don’t care what they spoke before, we just need them to speak English now.’ ”

Joy Kreeft Peyton, the vice president of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said she doesn’t know of any other state legislature that has set up a task force to examine the resources that heritage speakers could offer. “The bottom line is [Maryland has] switched the focus from immigrants as a problem to people with high-level skills, high levels of education, and speaking languages other than English. It’s a different focus that is very powerful.”

The report calls on the Maryland education department to carry out four of the task force’s seven recommendations: increase the number of dual-language programs from two to at least 10; expand teacher-certification opportunities for heritage speakers; enhance collections in schools and public libraries of children’s books in heritage languages; and better support schools in providing high school credit by exam for students who speak languages other than English at home.

Colleen Seremet, the assistant state superintendent for instruction, said the department doesn’t expect to receive any additional state funds to carry out the recommendations, but she believes many can be done without extra money. Susan Spinnato, a specialist in world languages for the education department, has been assigned to coordinate the implementation.

Ms. Spinnato said the department has tried to make it easier for native Italian and Chinese speakers to earn credit for their proficiency so they don’t have to get an undergraduate degree in those languages to become teachers in Maryland. She wants to set up practical ways for speakers of other languages to become teachers as well.

While Maryland permits schools to provide foreign-language credit to high school students by having them take an exam, Ms. Spinnato said she isn’t aware of any districts that are doing so. She’s convening a group to find out what language exams are available from test-developers, and hopes to have an approved list of exams to provide to districts by next year.

Two districts—Montgomery and Prince George’s counties—have dual-language programs in which students who are dominant in English and those who are dominant in Spanish learn both languages together. Ms. Spinnato said the department will be promoting such programs as a cost-effective way to teach heritage languages.

One of the most amazing findings of the audit, said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation to set up the task force, is that two-thirds of heritage speakers in Maryland speak languages other than Spanish.

Heritage-language schools, said Mr. Rosapepe, “are the driving force on this. The school systems are behind the curve.” He added: “The foreign-language strategy of schools is oriented toward a handful of European languages that are in declining use around the world, instead of being focused on the real diversity of languages in the world and of heritage people in the United States.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Maryland Tackles Ways to Tap Into ‘Heritage’ Languages


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