Formerly known as “kitchen” languages, heritage languages are now the focus of a Yale project that is expanding to include eight language departments.
The Heritage Meets Heritage project, launched in spring 2016, aims to unite heritage language learners from across many Yale departments and to study their linguistic and cultural patterns. Spanish lector Sybil Alexandrov leads the project, and Greek lector Maria Kaliambou, Russian lector Julia Titus ’99 and Korean lector Angela Lee-Smith.joined in 2016 This year, the project also expanded to include Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Japanese and Chinese heritage learners.
A heritage speaker is a person who has grown up using a language other than English for cultural or religious reasons but who has not received a formal education in that language. However, heritage speakers from different languages have never interacted through an official Yale program, which is what the new project focuses on.
“It occurred to me that we have all of these heritage speakers and they probably have a lot of things in common,” Alexandrov said. “But I kept thinking what would happen if they spoke to each other, and that’s what this project is all about.”
The first of the project’s three stages requires that students involved with the project complete an anonymous questionnaire about how they use their heritage language, as well as their cultural identity. Second, all participants review the survey responses of the other students. Finally, the participants meet in pairs to discuss a series of questions involving their heritage identity. Each meeting is videotaped and submitted to the lectors.
Heritage speakers usually lack academic reading and writing skills and do not know what is appropriate and inappropriate to use in various social situations, Titus said.
One of the main problems for heritage speakers, Kaliambou said, is the perception that they are constantly making mistakes, which blocks them from using their heritage languages to their full potential.
Discussing their experiences, however, Alexandrov said, showed the students that they are not alone in their struggles with such problems, and also helped them create a sense of belonging to a larger heritage learner community at Yale.
Hudson Lee ’19, a heritage learner who participated in the project last year, said that he enjoyed taking part in it, and that it turned out to be much more than merely comparing his experiences with his partner.
“The project was the first time I had really gotten the chance to think about where I stood as a Korean-American,” he said. “I enjoyed learning the amusing similarities and differences in my experiences compared to those of my project partner, and I was able to gain a newfound appreciation for my language and heritage and how it’s shaped me into who I am.”
The project is currently the only one of its kind at any U.S. college or university, including the National Heritage Language Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Titus noted that another challenge faced by researchers is that most studies of heritage learners are language-specific, and thus do not consider trends that are seen across languages, which is something the Yale project focuses on. Titus said the group would like to come up with a collaborative paper, in which it will examine the trends to enrich the academic field.
“So far, the research is talking from outside — the scholars, the linguists are talking about this from teachers’ perspective,” Kaliambou said. “But now we try to bring the students into the center of the research.”
Another point of consideration for the lectors, Lee-Smith said, is that heritage learners are underrepresented and “not welcome” in many foreign-language classrooms. This is due in part to their higher expectations of language abilities — according to Lee-Smith, oftentimes the instructors think that heritage learners will have high levels of achievement across all four language skill sets, and get frustrated when it turns out that this is not the case.
Lee-Smith said heritage learners have the highest potential to reach the native speaker’s level, and that is why showing them that their cultures and languages are meaningful is important.
Heritage language tables will be held in the Commons dining hall at the end of February and in April.