"The Revitalization of Heritage Languages"
by Rajit Bhandari
Long Live Native Languages:
In corporation with an interview conducted involving Selwyn Hernandez, Daniel Villa’s No Nos Dejaremos: Writing in Spanish as an Act of Resistance, and Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching by Suhanthie Motha, audiences are provided with the difficulty that multilingual students posses while trying to succeed in the American school system. Motha explains that “… Languages carry within them worldviews, ways of conceptualizing reality, and that the loss of a language may be more far-reaching than most linguistics can understand” (Motha, 7). While Motha discusses how the English language upholds issues regarding power and racial inequalities due to past and present history, she is unable to provide explicit ways on how teachers can retain languages, specifically heritage languages, to avoid these far-reaching issues. Villa, on the other hand, looks at appreciation toward language revitalization and discusses how learning a globally dominating language can feel diminishing towards one’s own heritage. Although this issue does demand attention from educators, Villa is unable to describe ways in which both native languages and English can coexist in classrooms. On the contrary, I argue that educators must incorporate heritage languages into classroom curriculum in order to spread cultural awareness, help heal past racial inequalities and tensions, build students’ unique cultural identities, and assist in raising self-esteem, improving family life, and combatting bullying. By doing so, school systems will allow for a better living and learning community, and inherently move towards a world with greater affinity and understanding between individuals.
Increase Cultural Awareness:
For schools to increase cultural awareness, teachers must be advocators of allowing multilingual students to incorporate heritage languages into coursework. I believe that when students lose a language, they also lose the culture associated. So, to help retain both language and culture, educators must realize the positive effects associated with and importance of being bilingual. When asked why culture is so important to him in his interview, Selwyn responded with, “It’s literally the only thing that I have besides them [family]… Culture is family where I come from, and without family, you have nothing.” Selwyn, the son of immigrants who came to the United States to escape the Civil War of the 1980's in Guatemala, and his family are one of many immigrants moving to America in order to seek a better and more opportunity-filled life. In doing so, however, Selwyn and many of his multi-cultural and multi-lingual peers feel the need to forget their primary culture, and the heritage associated with that language, to fulfill the standards of the American culture set inside and outside of the classroom. Often times this form of “deculturalization”, the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture, claiming that the new culture is better (Motha, 10), has negative setbacks on bilingual students. So, why must the American school system take away the one thing that many of these immigrants brought with them from overseas in culture and heritage? The answer is still yet to be determined. However, by teaching heritage languages alongside English, teachers will allow multilingual students to not have to start all over when coming to America. Instead, being bilingual can be seen as an advantage and be recognized as having positive cognitive effects on the brain, among many other things, rather than being seen as an obstacle to overcome.
Help Overcome Racial Inequalities and Unify Students:
In addition to raising cultural awareness, acquiring and maintaining a native language has the ability to help heal past racial tensions, hardships, and inequalities, as well as bring unity among diverse individuals. According to Villa, “Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection” (Villa, 94). So why are teachers silencing multilingual students? In my opinion, if teachers encourage and incentivize students to use and incorporate heritage into writing, the complexity and quality of work will skyrocket. Additionally, by preserving heritage languages, students will more deeply value their multiple cultures, while also respecting the unique cultures of their peers. However, this is not the case. Throughout time, the association between the dominance of the English language and the “inferiority” of many heritage languages in classrooms has triggered negative feelings and emotions for multilingual students. These negative connotations associated with English are mainly due to the belief that the English language reinforces its past colonial divisions of power and racial inequalities to create cultural disparities among multilingual students. Motha argues that due to past historical events that the English language has participated in, education professionals need to pursue teaching English in an engaging way to combat these racial hardships. While I agree with Motha that these engaging ways of teaching English will encourage respectfulness and peace within the classroom, I add that the best way to engage students is by teaching bilingual education with a focus on heritage languages. Therefore, to help erase or mend the past, educators should focus on maintaining native languages to avoid the perception that English is based on wealth, power, and domination, but rather on diversity and acceptance. By encouraging language revitalization, it will additionally help students initiate deeper thought and provoke more intellectual conversations regarding various cultures and languages. This can help unify students rather than segregating them based on racial and cultural differences. Instead, teachers still insist on consciously ignoring the fact that by not inducing language recovery in the classrooms, multilingual students are farther behind than ever.
Improve Students' Sense of Identity by Integrating Culture:
By teaching bilingual education with a focus on heritage languages, educators can help minority students form their unique sense of identity. Inevitably, learning a globally dominating language, such as English, can feel diminishing towards one’s own heritage languages due to many different reasons. As stated by Motha, “… Language travels around the globe, it is imbued with a variety of meanings and connotations, many of which present English as attractive and desirable and promising to rescue those who might otherwise be doomed to provincial lives of ignorance and poverty” (Motha, 5). While I do agree with Motha in that the English language is desirable and presents many attractions, I counter her argument to add that individuals aren’t “doomed” for lives of “ignorance and poverty” if they aren’t sufficient in English. Instead, I think that the mixture and proficiency in both a native heritage language and English will provide students to be better off and have a stricter sense of identity, and additionally, more resources down the road. For this integration to effectively happen, teachers should adopt a better way of talking about race, heritage, and culture without fear of appearing ignorant or saying “the wrong thing”. Instead, we should be open in conversation and be able to integrate aspects of multilingualism in speaking and writing, as argued by Villa, in respect to combatting the negative forces that perceive English as the end-all-be-all language spoken and contextualized in America. When asked how he sees himself as a bilingual student, Selwyn responded with, “I see myself as two halves of a whole person.” As languages can carry negative undertones with their histories, learning only a dominating language can be extremely cruel as well. On the other hand, the English language does allow for greater access to resources and opportunities. Thus, only through experiences in both their native language and English can students become more mindful and culturally-responsive human beings, while also staying true to oneself and not discriminating against others.
Raise Self-Esteem and Erase Bullying:
Not only would language preservation in classrooms serve as higher education for the student body, it would also be valuable for students' self-esteem and family life, and therefore, allow them to form a connection between knowledge gained at home and in school. Students will no longer be shameful of their unique culture and language. When asked how his parents view the importance of learning Spanish vs. English, Selwyn responded with saying, “They viewed it the same, but if I were to put it into a scale, it would lean more towards English. This is because, to be completely honest, and they understand this, living in the United States, knowing English is probably the most important thing for survival.” I argue that English should no longer be seen as the "most important thing for survival", but rather, it should be a stepping-stone in the right direction. By integrating bilingual education into the classroom, the universal perception that competence in the English language is the token to survival will be abolished. Instead, students will be seen as more unique and their peers will be more interested in learning various aspects of different cultures, rather than picking on someone who is "different" and struggles with the English language. Villa thinks that, “The voices that express themselves [students] in primary discourse, in either English or Spanish, must be valued. To fail to do so many well alienate the writer, resulting in him/her disengaging from working toward literacy” (Villa, 89). I do agree with Villa’s belief that minority students need to understand, appreciate, and not forget the beauty of their first language in an effort to maintain it as part of their self-identity, and I add that it is the school’s job to appropriately integrate heritage languages into courses. Without the resurrection of heritage languages in the classroom, the spread of the English language has, and will continually, result in the destruction of other cultures and their indigenous languages, causing students to fall into what Villa calls "the lost generation". Therefore, by consciously teaching English alongside indigenous languages, educators will push students to be more flexible and accepting of their peers. In return, teachers will additionally be able to reduce discrimination and bullying and increase assimilation and interconnectivity among students.
The Importance of Heritage Languages:
Through my understanding of both Motha and Villa’s texts in corporation with an interview conducted upon Selwyn Hernandez, I convey the message that in order for teachers to get the most out of multilingual students, they should reevaluate the importance of heritage languages in the classroom. Rather than being content with standardizing students with basics in English, educators should diversify their curriculum to reinforce that cultural and racial inequalities associated with an “English-only” system are no longer true. It is clear that there is a distinct connection between language and culture; therefore, if students are forced to completely immerse in only English during their grade school years, they will inevitably lose cultural aspects associated with their native heritage which will place a dent on their sense of identity. Most importantly, these same students will have to play a game of “catch-up” with the American culture for the rest of their lives in order to be accepted into society for the wrong reasons. Instead of this happening, I propose further research to be done regarding the involvement of heritage and culture inside of classrooms. It is already proven that bilingual students have cognitive, social, and health benefits in comparison to their monolingual peers. So why don't we encourage young children to be involved in multiple cultural and native language-related activities to induce these benefits? Why is the American school system so stuck on discouraging culture in school? Why do students continually pick on their peers who have a hard time getting their points across in English? The answer to these questions will provide better insight on how schools can fix this issue as a whole.
1. Motha, Suhanthie. "Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching." Teachers College Press, n.d. Web.
2. Villa, Daniel. "No Nos Dejaremos: Writing in Spanish as an Act of Resistance." N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
2. Villa, Daniel. "No Nos Dejaremos: Writing in Spanish as an Act of Resistance." N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.