The Problem

There is strong evidence that students’ proficiency in their heritage languages – that is, the language spoken by a student’s parents that is not the language spoken in that person’s community – leads to higher academic achievement, including increased English acquisition as well as greater cognitive flexibility and ability to deal with abstract concepts. Research has also shown that student loss of proficiency in a heritage language can lead to family communication problems and lower self-esteem that increases the likelihood of a student’s dropping out of school. Most heritage language maintenance has been left to families and individuals, but the evidence shows that this has not been sufficient for students to maintain their heritage languages. Students spend much of their time in school, so teachers can play an important role in encouraging the heritage language maintenance of their students while also strengthening their English skills. This is a report of a study that looks at what types of teacher training and experiences are associated with teachers who take on this role.

The Study

Dr. Jin Sook Lee and Eva Oxelson have done a study of K-12 teachers’ attitudes toward student heritage language maintenance. Sixty-nine public school teachers in elementary (38) and middle or high schools (31) from two school districts in Northern California and two in Southern California participated in the study. The fourteen male and fifty-five female teachers all answered survey questions about their attitudes and practices related to students’ heritage language maintenance, and ten participated in a forty-minute in-depth interview about the same topic. Analysis of the survey and interview data looked at whether years of teaching experience, type of training – BCLAD (Bilingual Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development), ESL (English as a Second Language) or non-BCLAD/ESL – and fluency in a language other than English significantly affected teachers’ attitudes and practices regarding students’ heritage language affirmation and maintenance.

The Results

The analysis of the surveys and interviews showed that the attitudes of teachers who have had bilingual training or are fluent in another language are significantly different from those of the teachers who have not had the training. There was no significant difference in attitudes related to years of teaching. BCLAD/ESL-trained teachers believed that maintenance and proficiency in a heritage language positively affects students’ academic work. They had a more favorable attitude about the role of the school in supporting this maintenance. They implemented more classroom practices that affirm students’ home cultures and languages, believing these practices were part of educating the “whole child.” Teachers who had fluency in another language also supported the school’s role in heritage language maintenance and had similar classroom practices.

Teachers not trained in BCLAD or ESL recognized the personal benefits for the student of heritage language maintenance but did not seem to be aware of the benefits of heritage language use for English acquisition and academic growth. They believed the way to increase English acquisition was more direct exposure to and time on English. They felt it was not their job to support heritage language maintenance but saw that as a personal or family activity and felt they did not have time in class nor any training about how to do it.

What This Means for Education

Research shows that heritage language maintenance is important for student academic success and that teachers can play an important role in that maintenance. This study also shows that teachers usually did not know how to fulfill this role and also did not see it as a part of their responsibility unless they had BCLAD or ESL training or spoke a second language. There is a need to provide information and support to all teachers so they also can play a role in the academic success of students by encouraging their heritage language maintenance.

This is a summary of an article printed in Bilingual Research Journal (Summer 2006).


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