View Sidebar
Click on any book icon to see Table of Contents and/or to purchase a copy.

Except from:
Wink, J., & Wink, D. (2004, pp. 112-114). Teaching passionately: What’s love got to do with it? Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

A heritage language is one not spoken by the dominant culture, but is spoken in the family or associated with the heritage culture.
Krashen, Tse, & McQuillan, 1998, p. 3

A heritage language is the language of the heart. It is the language spoken between parent and child to express love. It is the language of childhood and family stories. Each person carries within all of the norms, stories, politics, spirituality, expectations, and history of our heritage language. Experiences feel more real. For example, often Holocaust survivors cannot describe their experiences in the heritage language. The pain is too intense. They can describe these horrors only in their second or third languages. These languages, learned later, provide the necessary distance to make the words utterable. Our heritage language with all that it encompasses, is a primary lens through which we experience the world.

The power and influence of this lens was captured recently by Yasmina, a Muslim Arab from Pakistan. Yasmina was a student of Joan’s one summer in Mallorca, Spain in a class for teachers in international education. English was the language of the classroom in addition to the multiple heritage languages: Serbian, German, Croatian, Czeck, Arabic, Japanese, Dutch, Berber, Pakistani, French, and Spanish. Yasmina was, quite simply, one of those magical people who not only attracts people to her with her own passion for life and learning but also makes it safe to expand one’s understanding.

The class discussed heritage languages in class one morning. Yasmina remarked on the complete aversion to pigs that is part of being Muslim. This aversion was so strong that Yasmina could not even utter the word in her own heritage language, Berber, but could voice the word in her second and third languages.

Yasmina’s inability to speak the word “pig” in Berber effectively demonstrations the ties of the heartstrings connected with our heritage language. Somehow, through the blanket of love and safety that slowly enwrapped the class, pigs became a source of discussion and jokes. A room of people overtly discussing pigs was completely irreverent and sacrilegious in Yasmina’s heritage language and culture. However, the love and trusting human connections in the class made it okay. Even, Yasmina, seated in her complete head and body covering in the Mallorquin heat, couldn’t keep a straight face and laughed along with the rest.

Eventually, Joan asked one small group to review the concept of heritage language (Krashen, Tse, & McQuillan, 1998) for the entire class. They were not simply to transmit the ideas, but rather they were to engage the learners in an active process to experience the value of heritage languages. This was the context as the small group of students began their review of heritage languages. They walked to the chalkboard and wrote in large letters:

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.

The class roared with laughter. The student leaders told the class that they were to translate it into as many heritage languages as possible. Each small group wrote their various translations on chart paper posted around the room; the more languages in each group, the more translations, an obvious advantage.

However, the class immediately jumped into all of the hidden advantages of languages and cultures. One group wanted to forego the exact translation, as they preferred to use authentic expressions, which expressed the same meaning, in various languages. A second group quickly shared their translations and, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, launched in a soliloquy on the Dewey concept of beginning with the pig. Another group taught their translations from the point of view of a pig.

The example of the pig in the Muslin Arab culture captures the wide-reaching web encompassed in a heritage language. It is not merely the words. It also all of the history, culture, norms, and love that go along with that language. The word, pig, in the context of the Muslim Arab world, demonstrates the power of heritage language. Remember, Yasmina couldn’t even speak the word pig in her native Berber. It was too close. Love amongst the students and teacher made discussion of pigs safe.

When we deny people the right to speak and develop their heritage language, we are also denying them access to dynamic relationships between thought, speech, and experience. When development of the heritage language is prohibited, family ties, cultural and historical norms, and expressions of love are essentially prohibited, as well.

The learning in that international context was fascinating to experience, and it was abundantly obvious that heritage languages are not only harmless but actually quite beneficial. As Joan and Dawn have discovered numerous times in their lives, being bilingual is not bad; rather it is good, a distinct advantage. The development and maintenance of the heritage language have cognitive advantages and job-related advantages, and it encourages deeper communication among family members (Krashen, Tse, & McQuillan, 1998). Families and older children support the maintenance of heritage languages (Shin & Krashen, 1999), although many adolescents go through a stage in which they feel indifferent to the heritage language and may even avoid it. This happens apparently due to the strong pressure for English and social integration in English-speaking society (Krashen, Tse, & McQuillan, 1998).

So, given the obvious: How do we maintain and develop heritage languages? We do it through comprehensible input, good books, TV, parents’ use of the language, and recreational reading in the heritage language (Cho, & Krashen, 2000; McQuillan, 1999; Tse, 2001); we do it the very same way we develop any language: meaning. It is the same thing we do daily in families. However, for heritage languages to thrive, the dominant culture must value them-the vital ingredient presently missing in the United States.

When we tell the people we love, “I love you,” it is most meaningful and powerful when we say it in our heritage language. Does anybody have the right to take that language and those feelings away? Heritage language has recently captured the attention of many and seems to be readily understandable by academics and laypersons. The development of the heritage language assumes the continual development of the dominant language (English, in this case) also.

The Literacy Link 
Books are the best literacy link. Libraries are the links to literacy. Go to the library. Buy books at garage sales and annual library sales; trade books; write books; read with children; let children see you reading; talk about your reading. If you do all of these things in English, English will develop. In addition, if you do these things in a language other than English, you will get two languages, plus all of the cognitive, social, and job-related advantages, that come with being bilingual.