What are the challenges to maintaining national linguistic diversity? — Globally relevant lessons from heritage language education in the U.S.

If a country wants to maintain its linguistic diversity, it has to respond to the challenges of teaching heritage languages. “Heritage languages” (HLs) and “heritage language learners” are not well defined terms, but they can be understood as the languages of indigenous peoples, immigrants, and other linguistically minoritized groups. The day before posting this, I attended the Zoom launch of the Heritage Language Exchange Project (https://HLXchange.com) at the National Heritage Language Resource Center. It involved a panel of pioneering heritage language researchers in the U.S. who remembered their research from the 1960s to 1990s (and their late colleagues)…. What I took away from their discussion were the ongoing challenges to HL teaching and learning, which are the same challenges to maintaining national linguistic diversity—and lessons learned are not only relevant to the United States.

Brecht, D., Christian, D., Peyton, J., Roca, A., & Valdés, G. (2021). HLX Launch Event: “A retrospective look at the roots of heritage language education: A panel discussion with pioneering changemakers of the field” (Moderated by M. Carreira). Heritage Language Exchange, NHLRC. https://www.hlxchange.com/hlx-launch-event.html

The panel discussion about the history of heritage language learning ended up pointing to some present-day challenges. In this post, I summarize the discussion, which consisted entirely of Q&A, before discussing four challenges to maintaining national linguistic diversity arising from the challenges of teaching heritage languages. (As one panel member said, these challenges exist for other countries, not just the U.S.). The professors on the panel were:

Dick Brecht, Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL), University of Maryland
Donna Christian, Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), Washington, DC
Joy Peyton, Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), Washington, DC
Ana Roca, Florida International University
Guadalupe Valdés, Stanford University

The moderator was Maria Carreira, Emerita Professor of Spanish at California State University Long Beach and Co-Founder and Emerita Co-director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC), UCLA.


The following discussion is a paraphrase, but it was checked with HLXchange, whom I am partnering up with for a Zoom talk on Dec. 2 (4 pm PST) with my friend Jayson.

CARREIRA: In the 70s and 80s, there was no term “heritage language teaching”; it was called “the teaching of a language to native speakers.” Guadalupe, can you tell us what happened back then?

VALDES: In the 1970s, U.S. colleges and universities had an “Open Enrolment” policy, which was 100% non-competitive. The bottom line was: as long as you had a high school diploma (or, if you had dropped out of high school but passed the GED exam equivalent to a high school diploma), you could be admitted to college/university. So college/university student populations became very diverse—they enrolled not only people who had a solid academic foundation, often from a more privileged K-12 educational background.

One hurdle of getting a Bachelors degree is the foreign language requirement. [e.g., French 101/102 (elementary French) in first year, 201/202 (intermediate French) in second year]. A lot of the open enrollment students spoke Spanish at home, so they enrolled in Spanish classes. In the Southwest, we had Mexican origin Americans; in the Northeast, we had Puerto Rican origin Americans. [Side note: The U.S. also had Cuban origin Americans like the famous translanguaging researcher Ofelia García.] These are all different and complex migration histories. But the faculty, who were so used to teaching Spanish as a foreign language to middle-class white students who only spoke English (until open enrollment changed the student body), had no idea how to teach “Spanish to native speakers” who (a) already came with some knowledge of Spanish, but of the “wrong” dialects, and (b) had to learn to “forget” their “bad habits.” Many of these students did not graduate because they did not pass the foreign language requirement, because of what was right/wrong Spanish on tests.

This was all before “critical applied linguistics,” “raciolinguistics,” and forthright discussions about race- and class-based linguistic prejudice. The idea was to “undo the damage that had been done at home.” [Yes, it was seen as “damage,” not as resources!] Teachers saw everything students did as wrong-headed, but these students had learned perfectly grammatical Spanish at home, albeit different dialects. The same thing happened to heritage French speakers in Canada. In fact, the term “HL speaker,” however imperfect, was taken from Canadian scholarship; in the U.S., we didn’t know what to call the students.

CARREIRA: Thank you Guadalupe. So I’m going to ask Ana, what discussions were happening around this time?

ROCA: I remember I was a newly-graduated PhD working at University of Miami, Florida [20 years later; the problem was much the same, as it still is today]. I’d changed my track from literature to language pedagogy (sociolinguistics), and I was excited to attend conferences in this new track. I went to one in New Mexico in 1996 where Valdés was a speaker and found it inspiring. I organized three conferences myself in the following decades, because I was interested in Spanish in contact with other languages, not just English.

I’ll give a little background here. I immigrated to Miami at the age of 9, in the 1960s, only speaking Spanish in fourth grade. Miami back then was English-dominant; there weren’t many Spanish speakers; it wasn’t very bi/multilingual. I’d go to the school cafeteria with the other ESL students and we’d watch talking cats speaking English on T.V. Then the English teacher who didn’t speak Spanish would come in, and she made us repeat what the talking cats said on T.V., but I didn’t get what she wanted, I didn’t get the instructions, so I got an F.

In junior high school, I took my first Spanish heritage language class, and the teacher was excellent. I loved reading Llorca—it was a much better experience. Of course, Miami is as racialized now (with racism all around) as it was back then, even if it’s more diverse now. When I was a kid and my family was looking for a place to rent, I asked the landlady as we were leaving one place: “Do you permit pets?” in my Spanish accent, and she said, “Pets yes, but Cubans no,” and slammed the door in my face.

Now as well as then, we need to look at language ideologies. Why are heritage languages under-funded in the U.S.? What does that tell us about how the speakers of those languages are valued? If the speakers are not valued, neither are their languages. [Side note: Mandarin may be an exception, but that is not valuing a culture; it’s competition.]

HL learning as an academic field has grown, and things have changed a lot, but they still need to change for a better place in these classes.

CARREIRA: Thank you Ana; what you just said connects to what I want to ask Joy. Why was the work of Joshua Fishman—who coined the term “diglossia”—important?

PEYTON: One thing I wanna say first, Fishman was a lovely person. He always kept in touch with our project. In the 1960s, he identified over 180 heritage language schools, which grew to over 500 in the 1980s. Can you imagine, thousands of schools teaching hundreds of languages in the U.S., but none of them in the “regular” schooling system. Classes after school, on weekends… how invisible is the language knowledge of these students in the regular K-12 school system? The first National Heritage Language Conference was at CSULB in 1999. Now we’re continuing Fishman’s work to document the heritage language schools in this country.

CHRISTIAN: A few of us lived through those decades, and we’re thinking about our own personal history as well as the history of the field. Those of us who were involved in HL research were largely concerned with attrition (language loss), because that was what was happening to HL speakers of both indigenous and immigrant backgrounds. We thought dual language programs (where people spoke one language at a time) would prevent attrition. Lily Wong Fillmore has published valuable work on the socioemotional toll of language loss, like kids not being able to talk to their grandparents. And Olga Kagan, Russ Campbell, and Dick Brecht—the goal was to preserve the languages we had.

[Blogger’s note: Even if these HL or dual language programs discouraged translanguaging, it did not necessarily mean the students were devalued as people. There were language maintenance targets. Also, dual language programmers hoped that teaching a class of 50% Latinx students and 50% non-Latinx American students (mostly white) English and Spanish would raise the value of Spanish and help the two groups of students learn from each other… but the inequality of the languages in society led to unequal relations in the actual interactions that went on in the class, regardless of programming, as the Spanish L1/HL speakers, who were more bilingual and less socioeconomically well-off as a group, catered to the needs of the Spanish L2 speakers, and the Spanish L2 speakers devalued their peers’ versions of Spanish because of the discourses in the U.S. about what was “good” or “bad” Spanish (see earlier comment by Valdés).]

BRECHT: What was important about the 1960s to 1990s in the U.S.? [This was the period following the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed immigrants to petition family members to come to the U.S., resulting in immigration chains.] It was when the country exploded with immigrants! We finally decided that Asians were human beings—and I’m not sure we’ve made that decision with everyone. The Soviet Union fell, we won, and history ended (yeah right).

Immigrants from all countries wanted language schools for their children, and they started with less commonly taught languages and were focused on grammar and usage. I’m sick of calling them “World Languages”—these are America’s languages. The government needs to take responsibility for them, see them as part of “who we are.” But you need to find out how languages are used before you start teaching language. We need to get past language teaching as an academic exercise, and look at the real people, and their passionate leaders.

ROCA: Can I say something about the less commonly taught languages? … I remember being aghast when a top university in California had no HL program for Spanish speakers. In California. Spanish is the biggest population, and there are still a lot of holes in Spanish HL education, a lot of discrimination against Spanish speakers. Of course all the languages are important, but sometimes it’s “cooler” to be more supportive of the less commonly taught languages. What about the one that has so many students?

CARREIRA: Yes, in a national policy document, I found not one single example of Spanish. There were all these quotes from other languages. It was shocking.

ROCA: Spanish speakers are not all the same—different countries, different periods of arrival, different accents, different socioeconomic levels. Is it possible that there are not really that many Hispanics at a top university in California, and that is why there was no HL program for the Spanish speakers?

VALDES: Yes, I remember being “unworthy” to be in that Spanish department. I ended up in Chinano studies [i.e., studies on Mexico]. The Spanish department still did not teach Mexican literature.

BRECHT: Hold on folks! We can’t say “someone else’s gain is our loss,” because we know where that leads us. I know that’s not what you all are trying to say, and of course Spanish is very important in this country, but HL learning is important to everyone.

CHRISTIAN: Also, this is an international phenomenon—every place in the world has heritage and indigenous languages. Everywhere in the world, people face similar issues. It’s not a zero sum game, and we in the U.S. are not unique.

PEYTON: We (at big centers like CAL) need to work with community-based schools. Just the recognition that they exist is huge! I’ve encountered leaders, principals, of Bulgarian and Tamil schools, and when I’ve invited them to HL conferences—it was a man and a woman, on two separate occasions—and I pitched the conferences enthusiastically, these grown adults started crying. They said, “No one has ever talked like this to me. I’ve always been my myself.” It’s hard for them to collaborate with the big university and government organizations like ACTFL and CAL.

Four challenges to heritage language teaching and learning—and maintaining national linguistic diversity

Though I had to leave early, the discussion made me think of challenges to HL teaching and learning that have to be frankly discussed for HL teaching and learning to be successful. (You can’t address major challenges if they remain invisible.)

1. When there is tension between group interests, society/institutions need to prioritize the majority group in terms of public visibility and funding… but at the individual level, in specific classrooms or workplaces, the majority group should be cognizant of the needs of minoritized individuals.

Malsbary (2012) proposed a construct—focal immigrant group, or the majority immigrant group dominant in official discourse and the public imagination in the region (e.g., in California, Spanish speakers; in Vancouver, Chinese speakers; in Germany, Turkish speakers). As most of the prejudice, discrimination and negative stereotypes are directed at the focal immigrant group, smaller groups or individuals with rarer cultural backgrounds are tolerated or even celebrated, because they are not a perceived threat. I agree with Roca that society, the government, and institutions should not be allowed to dodge their responsibility to recognize the rights of the focal immigrant group, “the elephant in the room” as she put it.

On the other hand, my PhD dissertation outlines how in particular classrooms, such as those that teach the dominant societal language (e.g., English), the needs of linguistic minorities and singletons (the only speakers of their language in the class) need to be tended, particularly by the class members in the majority group (e.g., Spanish) or the teacher, if the teacher is in this group (Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2019). In sum: if you’re in the majority group in society, be an advocate for the rights of the focal immigrant group: this is where you will meet the most resistance from other members of the cultural mainstream, so it is where you should focus if you really want to help. If you’re in the linguistic or cultural majority in a particular place and situation, work towards the needs of whoever is minoritized in that context.

2. People who are concerned about heritage language loss/attrition should really divorce language teaching from native speaker standards, especially if they are teaching the HL learners themselves.

Native speaker standards are not the cure for attrition (generational language loss); these standards cause attrition because they make it miserable for youth to study their HLs. Besides, native speaker performance does not equal language proficiency, as I discuss in this post on balanced bilingualism. Brecht was right to say, “you need to find out how languages are used before you start teaching language. We need to get past the language teaching as an academic exercise, and look at the real people, and their passionate leaders.”

There’s one problem, though—sometimes it’s people in the HL community, particularly elders, who are the most pedantic about grammar and native speakerism. Heritage language learning should be about finding and celebrating your roots; it should be an identity-enhancing experience, as it was with Roca in junior high school when she discovered the writings of Llorca. Being faulted for not performing like a native speaker, for example how to pronounce “p” like your grandmother, especially on a test, is not fun. There are also cases where heritage languages are alive and well in young speakers’ translanguaging, but not recognized as such, as it is not “pure.” If mainstream schools do not recognize the language knowledge of HL speakers, do HL schools recognize language knowledge that is creative, hybrid, non-traditional, and located in the diaspora rather than the home country (Li, 2014)? (That said, elders should be recognized for their skill in multidialectal translanguaging between the languages of the home country; youth often do not know how to translanguage in this way.)

3. Americans have a tendency to compare their country negatively with other countries when it comes to education, and Canada in particular when it comes to tolerance of diversity, but oppressive education systems and linguistic and cultural assimilation exist everywhere.

While “heritage language” is a term that came from Canada, that country (my country) struggles with the horror of residential schools, where indigenous children were taken from their families and raised in so-called Christian boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their languages, had to change their names, and suffered malnutrition and sexual abuse. Many died; many were traumatized for life and passed intergenerational trauma on to their children.

If comparisons must take place between educational contexts, they should be at the level of the community and compare situations, e.g., Navajo HL classes and student profiles in New Mexico are similar to those of what…? Kaqchikel in Guatemala? Māori in New Zealand? Roma in England? Ojibwe in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada? These comparisons should be based on research, inquiry, and dialogue… not on uninformed social posturing and stereotyping like how much better Canada is than the U.S., which leads to much historical ignorance on both sides of the border.

4. It can be very hard for collaborations to occur between the big organizations (government language institutes and universities) and the little community heritage language schools, even if both are trying to promote HL learning.

I think this is because they don’t have enough overlapping interests. (Call me cynical, but they can be as opposing as David and Goliath.) The government wants people to learn standard versions of prestigious world languages for economic development (even though the connection between the cause and effect isn’t quite clear), or to learn “languages of the enemy” for national defence. Universities want to promote standard dialects and middle-class literacies because this legitimates their language teaching as “high quality”… rather than authentic language development in many dialects of HLs, or the use of HLs as lingua francas. And individuals within the HL communities themselves sometimes align with these institutions’ standards, because they want to accumulate cultural and social capital, and this leads to discourses of distinction within the HL communities.

Thus, HL community members and leaders should collaborate with the “big” institutions if they can, but it should be on their own terms. And they should promote as much internal diversity within their communities as possible. They would do well to remember a pronoun called “nos/otras,” invented by Gloria Anzaldúa. “Nos” means “us,” while “otras” means “others,” so “nos/otras” with the slash in the middle allows us to see ourselves alongside of others, connected, yet recognizing our differences (Gutiérrez, 2012, pp. 34–35). As a lesbian Chincana writer, Anzaldúa often felt both solidarity and lack of belonging among white feminists and the Chicano community that typically outcasts gays and lesbians. People sometimes erase the “others” in “us/others,” ignoring the diversity within their community, or they can keep the “otras,” acknowledging that the important communities they identify with are necessarily made up of diverse individuals who all have valid ways of using the HL and representing the heritage culture, different as these may be.


Allard, E. C., Apt, S., & Sacks, I. (2019). Language policy and practice in almost-bilingual classrooms. International Multilingual Research Journal13(2), 73-87. https://doi.org/10.1080/19313152.2018.1563425

Beiler, I. R. (2021). Marked or unmarked translanguaging in accelerated, mainstream, and sheltered English classrooms. Multilingua, 4o(1), 107-138. https://doi.org/10.1515/multi-2020-0022

Gutiérrez, R. (2012). Embracing Nepantla: Rethinking ‘knowledge’ and its use in mathematics teaching. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 1(1), 29-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.4471/redimat.2012.02

Li Wei. (2014). Negotiating funds of knowledge and symbolic competence in the complementary school classrooms. Language and Education28(2), 161-180. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2013.800549

Malsbary, C. B. (2012). “Assimilation, but to what mainstream?”: Immigrant youth in a super- diverse high school. Encyclopaideia: International Journal of Phenomenology and Education16(33), 89-112. https://doi.org/10.4442/ency_33_12_05

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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