Many students in Los Angeles, from kindergarten through college, speak a language other than English because they grew up hearing it. They are “heritage speakers,” the children of immigrants who communicate at home in their parents' native language. Yet many of these students have no literacy in the language they speak. And that is a problem.
Although heritage speakers have a good head start, they need classes targeted to their needs if they are to be truly bilingual. The urban landscape of Los Angeles is multilingual — and an ideal place to implement a far-reaching policy devoted to maintaining and developing the skills of heritage speakers.
According to a survey conducted by the Census Bureau, the number of people in the U.S. who speak a language other than English is almost 21%. In California it's more than double that, with almost 44% of residents speaking a language other than English at home. In Los Angeles County, that figure climbs to almost 57%.
A significant percentage of the more than 12 million residents in the metropolitan Los Angeles region speak a language other than English at home. While about 4.4 million are Spanish speakers, the survey found that other languages are amply represented. About 415,000 speak Chinese, 272,000 Tagalog and 258,000 Korean. Another 103,000 speak Persian and 55,000 Russian.
Although Spanish is offered at all public high schools, most of the other languages are taught at only a handful of schools. Russian is taught at one high school, and several languages, such as Tagalog and Persian, are not taught at all, according to my research.
By not teaching the languages that many students often only half-know, we are missing an opportunity to expand the number of Americans completely comfortable with other languages and cultures — a tremendous asset in today's increasingly globalized world. This loss of potential fluent speakers has long-term consequences for national security (remember the lack of Arabic speakers after 9/11?), business (it's not all about English anymore), family relations (what if parents don't speak English well, and children don't speak the home language well?) and social services (professionals speaking multiple languages are in high demand).
We need to embrace and advance homegrown bilingualism, but that can happen only if we offer these languages in our educational system. And, of course, it should not be done at the expense of learning English, which remains the sine qua non to function in the world.
A recent survey conducted by the National Heritage Language Resource Center at
showed that many college students would elect to formally study their home language to gain literacy, discover more about their heritage culture and linguistic roots, and communicate better with relatives. That can happen only if the language is offered as part of a curriculum for heritage speakers that takes their existing proficiencies into account. They won't be served well by a beginning language class because they arrive with considerable skills — and a beginning class assumes zero knowledge.
A smattering of schools offer instruction in languages spoken in their local communities. For example, Chinese is offered in Alhambra, Armenian in Glendale, Khmer in Long Beach and Vietnamese in Orange County. Some offer programs for heritage students. For example, Chinese, Korean and Arabic are taught as part of a heritage-language curriculum at Granada Hills Charter High School. Most schools do not teach the languages of their local communities, and if they do, they don't differentiate between the curriculum for foreign-language and heritage-language learners.
While Vietnamese immigrants first settled the city of Westminster in the mid-1970s, Westminster High did not offer its first Vietnamese language course until 1999. Now Vietnamese is taught in several schools in the Garden Grove School District, and there are plans to expand the curriculum to more schools.
Schools that want to introduce a local heritage-language program must overcome multiple roadblocks: Finding credentialed teachers of less-commonly taught languages and ensuring the teachers know how to teach heritage-language learners. Schools of education, university language departments and school districts need to come together to prepare teachers to implement a curriculum that takes students' home-based competencies into account and allows them to progress at a faster rate.
Language skills need be nurtured at home — and in the classroom. The dozens of languages spoken in Los Angeles make it the ideal place to lead the charge.
Olga Kagan is a professor in the UCLA department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian languages and cultures and director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA.