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Classes to Preserve Heritage Language Skills on the Uptick

For years, students who enrolled in U.S. schools with language skills other than English have not received much support in the school setting to keep developing proficiency in their native languages to become truly bilingual, biliterate adults.

But today's Houston Chronicle has an interesting story on the rising popularity of heritage language courses in the public schools there in the Houston area that may signal that some change is afoot. The heritage courses are designed to help students who are already fluent in English, but growing up in households where another language is spoken, maintain and strengthen literacy in their native languages.

More than 57 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number alone would suggest that there could be strong demand for K-12 schools to help the students in those homes keep and develop their heritage language. But the polarizing politics around immigration and bilingual education is one reason why creating and funding such programs has been difficult.

Heritage speakers aren't likely to benefit as much in a regular foreign-language class with non-native speakers, experts say. They need different curriculum and instructional strategies tailored for their more-sophisticated language skills.

While the Chronicle story says that the "number of programs and languages offered has exploded" in high schools and colleges over the last decade, it doesn't report any actual data. The National Heritage Language Resource Center is collecting survey data from colleges and universities on an ongoing basis to compile a database of heritage-language programs in higher education.

And the Center for Applied Linguistics has also built a database of heritage-language programs across the spectrum of community-based programs, school-based programs, and those in higher education. The CAL database has collected information on more than 60 school-based heritage programs nationwide and 263 community-based programs.

I'd like to learn more about programs that have sprung up and are flourishing in K-12 public schools, so please send any that you know of my way.

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