Reporter’s Notebook

October 30, 2002 3 min read
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Support for ‘Heritage Languages’ Encouraged at Conference

The nation’s leaders ought to support schools in helping language-minority students maintain and strengthen the languages they speak at home—especially at a time when the United States has a high demand for bilingual employees.

That was the opinion often expressed by some of the 300 panelists and educators who attended the second national Heritage Languages in America conference, hosted here this month by the Center for Applied Linguistics and National Foreign Language Center.

The organizers used the term “heritage-language speakers” for children or adults living in the United States who speak a language other than English at home but haven’t necessarily received a formal education in that language.

Panelist María M. Brau, a program manager for testing at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told attendees that the FBI has a particularly high need for people who have mastered English along with any of the following languages: Arabic, Farsi, Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Turkish, Hindi, Pashto, and Dari.

But many heritage-language speakers don’t score well enough on the FBI’s language tests to be hired by the agency, she said.

For example, she said, many speakers of languages that don’t have a Roman script can’t pass the required reading and translation tests because they haven’t learned the written characters of those languages.

Even on the FBI’s speaking test, heritage-language speakers usually score a 2-plus in the foreign language, she said, but most government positions require a score of at least 3, with 5 being the highest possible mark.

Diana Scalera, who teaches Spanish at the High School for Environmental Studies in New York City, later told the audience wryly that she was impressed that heritage-language speakers scored as well as they did on FBI language exams, given the lack of an education policy that addresses the nation’s need for bilingual people.

“I have a question about a government that has a need for thousands of foreign-language speakers, but provides no support for them and then blames the heritage-language speakers [for not being more proficient],” she said.

Her school provides classes to strengthen the skills of Spanish-speaking heritage-language students. Such classes—called Spanish for Native Speakers—have grown dramatically in the past decade.

Native Americans working to preserve their tribes’ languages, meanwhile, wondered aloud at the Oct. 18-20 gathering whether the public school setting is conducive to language preservation.

American Indians “are reclaiming the education of their own children,” said Christine Sims, a member of the Acoma tribe and a longtime trainer of teachers of Native American languages in New Mexico. “Much of the education system that people went through,” she said, “were systems imposed on indigenous people.”

Communities, rather than schools are often in a better position to take advantage of the knowledge of some of the older fluent speakers of a tribal language, Ms. Sims pointed out.

“Is it better to take a language out of the school and put it into the community, instead of trying to meet all these standards?” asked James Sundust, who teaches the Pima and Maricopa languages at Gila Crossing Community School, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Laveen, Ariz., that is now run by the Gila River Indian Community. The school has 470 students in pre-K through 8th grade.

Mr. Sundust, who added that he’s not a certified teacher, said it sometimes seems that meeting the requirements of Arizona state standards and tribal law, as well as demands from his school board, takes precedence over the goal of teaching tribal languages.

Ms. Sims responded that her tribe created a summer native- language program and then negotiated with the local schools to take it on as a year- round program.

Leanne Hinton, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, painted a dire picture of the health of the nation’s indigenous languages. The United States has 175 indigenous languages still spoken, but only about 20 of those languages are being learned by children at home from their parents, she said.

Because many indigenous languages aren’t well- documented, and people haven’t been trained to teach them, preserving them is a challenge, Ms. Hinton said.

“The English language overwhelms time and space,” she said, “so as to leave no time for indigenous languages.”

—Mary Ann Zehr

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