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Heritage Languages in Schools: A Story of Identify, Belonging and Loss

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The decision is usually made out of necessity. English is often viewed as a requirement of successful assimilation into this country. But it does not come without a cost, and in the case of many people who haven’t been able to keep up with their heritage language, or who never learned their family language in the first place, it can have a significant impact on identity. 

“Language shapes you. It shapes how you think,” Hung says, referring to language structure and the way we form thoughts. “So if language shapes how we’re thinking, and I’m not able to think primarily in my native language, does that make me less of a Cantonese person and less Chinese?” 

The loss of a heritage language can also affect how people learn because fluency in your first language greatly increases your ability to learn a second language; not having that first language as a solid foundation to learn from can be a barrier to fluency in all language learning. 

Additionally, one’s heritage language is greatly connected to a sense of self, and can determine the way one moves throughout the world and the classroom. 

WHEN WE BELONG, WE LEARN BETTER

A sense of belonging — being seen, valued and feeling connected in school — can go a long way for students. It can be a profound motivator, and impact education success for students inside the classroom and in the greater community. 

Part of fostering that sense of belonging relies on a school’s approach to language learning and its embrace of non-English speaking students, as well as a diverse set of cultural heritages and backgrounds. 

“You’re not going to be able to center the voices and identities of students in your classroom if you don’t see those voices and those identities as precious and important to you,” says David Bowles, author and professor at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, where he teaches the next generation of educators. 

Bowles is dedicated to teaching his preservice teachers about the value of embracing student’s cultural identity and heritage, particularly by embracing languages beyond English in the classroom. 

“I think that schools ought to be preserving heritage language and that they ought to be using students’ home language as the primary vehicle for literacy instruction in those early years,” says Bowles. 

While language immersion schools have recently gained popularity, it wasn’t always that way. In the 1980s and 1990s, California banned all bilingual education programs as they were deemed a “threat to English,” and it took nearly two decades to bring it back. 





However, establishing bilingual education programs often require a lot of work and determination by educators, advocates and community members pushing for more. 

“I was told in order for me to finish the essays on time I had to stop thinking in Arabic,” says  Nour Bouhassoun, the youth coordinator with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), about her time in U.S. schools supporting the idea that in order to succeed, it needed to be in English. 

“It’s not just a language, it’s my being, my culture. It’s the language I grew up speaking,” she says of Arabic. “So that language wasn’t validated. And I was feeling that I was not being my full self, not able to be my full self at school or in the school system.” 

Bouhassoun’s school experience helped motivate her to step into community organizing and working with AROC to impact change, including bringing an Arabic language pathways program to San Francisco.

It’s important, she says to “reclaim that sense of identity and sense of belonging, and feel that I am able to be proud of who I am, my family history and my language.”

Language is essential to identity. It can determine the way people live in the world, and in turn, it shapes world views. 

As student populations in the U.S. become more diverse, so does the call for better bilingual education – which includes acknowledging the role of a heritage language in all learning processes. “Teachers have to get to know their students,” Bowles says. 

Research will continue to show maintaining a heritage language has profound benefits, but a big challenge lies in creating the kind of bilingual learning environments needed for students to really thrive in, especially because students require a lot of one-on-one time with teachers and they’re in a system that’s already really taxing on teachers. 

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