Why Heritage Language Learning Matters

The United States is a country of immigrants, but historically the second generation of these immigrants has lost their parents' language – making our country poorer for it; economically, linguistically and culturally. Why has this happened repeatedly throughout our history? One reason could be the pressures of acculturation and the need to quickly fit into America's English-speaking society. But in today's interconnected world does it make sense to allow these valuable skills to just vanish? Fortunately, states across the country have finally begun to recognize the value of maintaining this treasure of linguistic and cultural heritage.

As of the writing of this article, 22 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Seal of Biliteracy that recognizes students who demonstrate a high level of proficiency in both English AND a second language. Dual language immersion programs, bilingual programs, and systems for competency-based language credits have been springing up around the country, presenting an opportunity to demonstrate the linguistic and cultural skills these students possess to universities and/or future employers. And these are not just in Spanish. We see programs developing in Vietnamese, Hindi, Haitian Creole, Filipino (Tagalog), Korean, Cantonese and many more. Avant has responded to this trend by expanding its proficiency assessments for use in the awarding of the Seal of Biliteracy or Credit by exam into all of the languages listed above, and several more, including Native American languages.

While the Seal of Biliteracy has had a substantial influence in expanding language programs, nationwide data shows that only approximately 30% of all Seals are awarded to heritage learners. Why is this cause for concern? We can do a better job in developing this valuable national language resource by encouraging those among us who are biliterate to use and expand their literacy in the heritage languages they bring to the classroom. Developing graduates who are fully literate in their heritage languages could help to solve the severe teacher shortage that exists today for dual language and world language programs. It could also help the United States remain competitive internationally because we could conduct business in both English AND the second language. 95% of the world's population resides outside the United States, so tapping this home grown language resource can give an advantage to companies seeking to expand internationally. It could also help to ensure our nation's security by fostering the development of languages that are critical to our nation's security.

The Seal of Biliteracy is intended to recognize and reward students who can demonstrate proficiency in English and another language. How can we ensure this concept gains traction? Reach out to high school learners who are proficient in English and another language to make sure they are aware of the benefits of the Seal. Communicate with local consulates and international chambers of commerce so they can inform the people they serve about this opportunity. Helping to provide a grassroots effort to inform people will ensure that this generation of young people will maintain and develop their heritage language.

About the Author:

Photo: David Bong

David Bong

Co-Founder & CEO of Avant Assessment

After successful roles in consulting, sales and web service information, CEO David Bong co-founded Avant Assessment in 2001 with his wife, Sheila, and Dr. Carl Falsgraf, formerly the Director of the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon. Avant is a leader in improving student outcomes in immersion and world language programs by providing data from its online, adaptive, real-world language assessments.