Accessibility links

'Heritage Speakers' Return to Native Languages


A little more than a decade ago, the number of people studying foreign languages in the U.S. colleges was on the decline. Now, the Modern Language Association of America reports enrollment is rising rapidly--in both overall numbers and the percentage of students taking foreign language. Other studies indicate many of those in language classes are known as "heritage speakers." That would include immigrants taking refresher courses in their native tongues or descendants of migrants who are now studying the language of their parents or grandparents.

In a Florida classroom, Barbara Leach and Marcella Bush practice Polish with their teacher. They are what experts call 'heritage speakers.' Leach grew up in the United States but her Polish parents did not speak English at home. Now, decades after speaking Polish as a child, Leach has decided to take up the language again.

"After my mother passed away 15 years ago I did not have anyone to speak Polish to and you end up, if you do not use it, you forget it,” Leach explains. “So I have decided to take the Polish classes and it has really helped a lot because once I started taking those I started thinking back in Polish -- when I would see a chair, instead of thinking it is a 'chair,' I am thinking of it in Polish."

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about two thirds of a million Americans speak Polish at home.

Here in Florida where the two women are studying their traditional language, Bush says interest is booming. "We usually have about 20 people in the Polish classes so that is kind of amazing to have 20 people interested in learning a very difficult language."

China is another country whose language is gaining in popularity in the U.S. At last count, the language association found a record 34,000 college students were studying Chinese. And a linguistics group stated an increasing number of those students are of Chinese descent.

Dr. Ilan Alon heads the Chinese department at a Florida college. He says, "What we are seeing is Chinese is becoming one of the most up and coming foreign languages and for the first time we have established a full-time professor to teach Chinese to various cohorts of our students."

The U.S. government funds work promoting heritage language skills. For example, the U.S. gave more than $300,000 dollars to the University of California to track minority language use each year in immigrant communities.

But Sophia Wu from Orlando's Chinese School of Tomorrow says training programs for heritage instructors are lacking, especially for those teaching younger students. "The kids, it depends on their level at home -- they have different levels of mastering the language. The teacher and the material, the text book, is not really now suited for this group so there is a lot of things needed to be done."

Across the U.S., in states like Florida, demand for heritage language courses continues to grow. Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian have all seen a surge in popularity. And one study estimated that around half of those enrolling in such language courses are heritage speakers.

XS
SM
MD
LG