LAWRENCE — Heritage language education is growing, but it is still not recognized by students, parents, teachers and teacher educators as a benefit for people who have language background other than English. A University of Kansas researcher argues that by more carefully considering the cultural identities of heritage language learners and reaching out to teachers in training, both teachers and students could benefit.
Hyesun Cho, assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, recently published the findings of a study she conducted with heritage language teachers over three semesters in Hawaii in the journal Language and Education. She also presented the work at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in April. Heritage language is a growing area of education and research, yet it lacks a strict definition. Generally speaking, a heritage language learner is someone who has knowledge of a language other than English, often through family or community.
Heritage language schools are growing in popularity across the nation, but research into how these teachers are educated is scarce. The classes are often taught by volunteers in churches or community centers. For example, in Lawrence, there is a Korean language school held at a local church on Saturdays. Like students who are often labeled “English language learners,” the teachers who educate students about a language and culture are too often disregarded and not drawn on for their cultural insights, Cho said.
“Heritage language education is a rapidly growing area, and there is a need for more research,” Cho said. “We can better understand how to conceptualize heritage language education, especially from a teacher’s perspective. We need to move beyond a shallow view of multiculturalism, such as ‘food and festival’ approach to addressing diversity.”
Cho detailed her findings from working with five bilingual undergraduate students studying to become teachers in Hawaii. The students, who took part in a program called Careers in Language Education and Academic Renewal, shared how they often feel viewed as minorities, as inferior and how their cultural insights could yield benefits in language education. They reported that by sharing their experiences as community-based school teachers, they transformed their own views on heritage language learners that could not be categorized simply as part of one culture, for example Korean, instead of Korean-American. When given a space to share personal and professional experiences — both face-to-face and online — they not only were more comfortable, but they also made a notable connection between teaching theory and practice, Cho said.
Drawing on the cultural capital for heritage language teachers, especially during their education, will help produce better teachers who can better teach their diverse students, Cho said, and it is increasingly important as immigration to the United States remains frequent. Research has shown that as recently as 2010, one in eight students in the United States are non-native speakers of English.
Cho, who recently received the Michael B. Salwen Scholar Award from the Korean American Educational Researchers Association, said education for heritage language students is improving, but there is still plenty of room for further improvement. Instead of viewing heritage language students as “deficient” or in need of special help, teachers can draw on them for their cultural and linguistic expertise. By including curriculum and classes for heritage language teachers before they are in the classroom full-time, education for all students can benefit, she said.
“We need curriculum and instruction for these teachers who have the knowledge of a heritage language,” Cho said. “That’s a missing link in helping for the people who want to teach for diversity and view language as a resource, not a deficit.”