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

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 (Ponomariova_Maria/iStock)

Two days after finding out her mother had cancer, journalist Melissa Hung took a walk in San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

“I didn’t grow up in a Chinatown. It is not my home,” Hung writes. “Yet when I think of my mother in Texas, I feel pulled towards Chinatown’s tightly packed stores and no-frills restaurants.”

In her piece, “Towards Chinatown,” Hung describes her experiences on a bus ride, walking through the streets and seeing people shop, eat and move throughout their day. She moves around the city feeling a sense of loss. The journey is meant to take her closer to her mother, and it inevitably has her reflecting on her mother tongue: Cantonese.

“Some words come easily. Others I grasp for,” she writes. “They exist just beyond my reach the way the details of a dream tease the waking mind.” 

Hung’s parents immigrated from Hong Kong, and she and her brother were born and raised in the U.S. They grew up speaking Cantonese in the house and English in school – Hung was placed in English as a Second Language classes as a kid – and when she was about eight years old, her parents made a conscious decision to switch to English-only. “My Cantonese freezes in time,” she writes, and English takes over.

Today, Hung’s Cantonese is just enough to get by, but she’s not able to have nuanced conversations – to follow a newscast, or talk art and politics, as she says. And she wonders what has been lost as a result of not being fluent in Cantonese. “I fear that some fundamental part of me has been displaced, that my inability to speak fluently renders me incomplete,” she writes. And beyond that, her connection to her family, “By losing my relationship to Cantonese, what have I lost in my relationship with my parents?”

WHAT’S LOST WHEN YOU LOSE A HERITAGE LANGUAGE?

According to 2019 data, there are nearly 5.1 million English learners enrolled in public schools in this country, and that number has steadily increased in the past two decades. Similar to Hung’s school experience, many students are taken out of class and placed in separate ESL learning rooms. Often parents are faced with a choice that involves investing more in English language learning than their heritage language. It’s a common experience for recent immigrants to the U.S. or children of immigrants. 

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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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It’s worth it, says Bowles. “We need to learn about each one of them and the particularities of their heritage language situation so that we can best support them in both the acquisition of English and the preservation of their heritage language, which I would argue should be the responsibility of U.S. schools.”