Bolstering heritage language learning: reflections on UW symposium

By Lar­isa Shuvalova

A group (including Shuvalova) presents at the symposium. Bridging the Gap: What do universities and K-12 need to do to know about heritage learners?

A group (includ­ing Shu­val­ova) presents at the sym­po­sium. Bridg­ing the Gap: What do uni­ver­si­ties and K-12 need to do to know about her­itage learners?

Dur­ing my early com­mute from Belling­ham on Jan, 25, I had plenty of time to think about what I was expect­ing to learn by attend­ing the Her­itage Lit­er­acy Sym­po­sium at UW. My com­mute reminded me about the sum­mer of 2012 when I decided to join the STARTALK pro­gram and per­son­ally learned how to con­nect my present expe­ri­ence as an ELL teacher in US schools with my past as a stu­dent major­ing in Russ­ian lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at the St. Peters­burg (Leningrad) State University.

One idea that drove me to invest my per­sonal time into attend­ing the Sym­po­sium at UW is my desire to learn how to con­nect the lit­er­acy in her­itage lan­guage (i.e. first lan­guage, the lan­guage one learns from his or her par­ents, home lan­guage) and the tar­get lan­guage (i.e. the lan­guage of study, the lan­guage of the coun­try in which one lives). As an Eng­lish learner and a mother of one, and as a Russ­ian and Eng­lish lan­guage teacher, I look for a bal­anced approach to bi-literacy. In other words, we do not have to for­get our first lan­guage in order to learn a new one. On the other hand, we should learn how to trans­fer the knowl­edge we already have about our first lan­guage to the new lan­guage we are learn­ing. This is true not only for adults, but it works for chil­dren as well. How­ever, chil­dren who do not develop full com­pe­tency in their home lan­guage should con­tinue their her­itage lan­guage devel­op­ment along­side the learn­ing of the new language.

Lan­guage is acquired socially and even the best lin­guis­ti­cally com­pe­tent teacher could not achieve the desired results in iso­la­tion from the lan­guage com­mu­nity. The main goal of a lan­guage teacher is to cre­ate edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties to use the lan­guage in a mean­ing­ful way. I am always on a look­out for these oppor­tu­ni­ties! While it’s not dif­fi­cult to find authen­tic mate­ri­als for learn­ing Eng­lish (we are sur­rounded by it!), I spend a lot of time look­ing for mate­ri­als and expe­ri­ences that will moti­vate chil­dren to con­tinue learn­ing their her­itage language.

The Her­itage Lit­er­acy Sym­po­sium helped me to under­stand the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the world lan­guage class offer­ings and assess­ments in pub­lic schools in Wash­ing­ton State, and how the needs of her­itage speak­ers could be met with the inno­v­a­tive approach to lan­guage teach­ing. There were about 60 peo­ple in atten­dance, rep­re­sent­ing wide range of con­nec­tion to her­itage lit­er­acy, from com­mu­nity teach­ers to pub­lic schools teach­ers and uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors. The Sym­po­sium con­sisted of five ses­sions, with panel pre­sen­ta­tions in the morn­ings, and inter­ac­tive activ­i­ties that helped the par­tic­i­pants to share ideas, iden­tify prob­lems and brain­storm pos­si­ble solu­tions, in the after­noon. Dur­ing the panel pre­sen­ta­tion I was pleased to learn about pro­grams cre­ated for her­itage learn­ers from preschool to the uni­ver­sity level. Even though it is too early to say if this move­ment will grow rapidly in our state or not, there is a def­i­nite change in per­spec­tive on her­itage literacy.

Stu­dents who are learn­ing Eng­lish used to be offi­cially referred to as Lim­ited Eng­lish Pro­fi­cient stu­dents, but now a new term has sur­faced in the pol­icy doc­u­ments: emer­gent bilin­guals. This under­scores the value of the her­itage lan­guage and cul­ture of the stu­dents who are enter­ing Wash­ing­ton schools. This change in per­spec­tive brought to life new pro­grams in the past three years. World Lan­guage Credit for Pro­fi­ciency Assess­ment gives her­itage lan­guage speak­ers unique oppor­tu­nity to earn high school cred­its for the knowl­edge of their her­itage lan­guages. For exam­ple, Russ­ian lan­guage speak­ers could take a pro­fi­ciency test that mea­sures read­ing, writ­ing, speak­ing and lis­ten­ing skills, and earn up to four high school world lan­guage cred­its. This gives recog­ni­tion and pride to stu­dents and their fam­i­lies, as well as moti­va­tion to con­tinue stud­ies of home lan­guages. Of course, it is pos­si­ble only if school board adopts the pol­icy to grant the cred­its for pro­fi­ciency, but many of the dis­tricts in Wash­ing­ton have already done so.

Her­itage speak­ers at Belling­ham School dis­trict earned col­lec­tively more than 400 high school cred­its in the last three years. STARTALK sum­mer pro­grams, after­school Viet­namese pilot pro­gram, Chi­nese bilin­gual ele­men­tary school and spe­cial courses for her­itage speak­ers at the uni­ver­sity level — all are designed to meet the unique needs of her­itage speak­ers, to chal­lenge them and give them the oppor­tu­nity to become part of main­stream edu­ca­tion. I was par­tic­u­larly impressed by the data from Jing Mei Chi­nese dual lan­guage school in Belle­view, where her­itage speak­ers of Chi­nese, who were also Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers, showed rapid progress in Eng­lish and exited ELL pro­gram faster than their peers who were not in bilin­gual school.

I also was delighted to hear about Viet­namese after­school pro­gram in Seat­tle. I teach an after­school Russ­ian lan­guage pro­gram in Belling­ham, and, even though my pro­gram con­sists of her­itage speak­ers as well as non-heritage speak­ers, I can relate to the demand of time spend on les­son prepa­ra­tion in order to appro­pri­ately chal­lenge all stu­dents, a con­cept that Michele Aoki (UW Slavic Stud­ies) men­tioned dur­ing her pre­sen­ta­tion. I was inter­ested to hear about using authen­tic mate­ri­als and authen­tic tasks when teach­ing lan­guage classes. In fact, for my Russ­ian lan­guage club I cre­ate authen­tic lan­guage expe­ri­ences and stage plays based on tra­di­tional Russ­ian folk­tales at the end of the year. I also hope to incor­po­rate mate­ri­als devel­oped for STARTALK dur­ing the three sum­mers the pro­gram was offered in Wash­ing­ton. I left the Sym­po­sium ener­gized and dream­ing about Russ­ian dual-language school where Russ­ian her­itage stu­dents study all sub­jects along­side non-Russian stu­dents in both Eng­lish and Russ­ian — from preschool to high school and beyond. We know that this is the best from the point of view of World Lan­guages and ELL, so we need to bring two worlds together and con­tinue rais­ing aware­ness among the pub­lic, fam­i­lies, and stakeholders.

Lar­isa Shu­val­ova is an ELL Spe­cial­ist and World Lan­guage Credit for Pro­fi­ciency coor­di­na­tor with the Belling­ham School Dis­trict. She is also an adviser of Russ­ian Lan­guage Club and a Russ­ian lan­guage interpreter/translator for the district.


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