California State University, Long Beach
Young girl standing in front of a blackboard with multiple languages written on it.

Foreign Language Hits Home

Dr. Maria Carreria leans on books
Dr. Maria Carreira focuses her research on identity, resilience, development and maintenance of home languages. Photo by Trang Le

Bilingual literacy has its challenges, especially with America’s emphasis on teaching children primarily in English; however, researchers continue to document the benefits of multilingual learning environments, especially for students from non-English speaking homes.

“In the U.S., there’s a sense that it’s a zero sum game between English and the home language. By that I mean that you have to choose between the two, that you can’t do both,” said Spanish Professor Dr. Maria Carreira. “So that obviously limits the effort and enthusiasm that goes into supporting the home language in the school context.”

“There’s a sense that it’s going to inhibit your ability to learn English or diminish your enthusiasm for becoming an American citizen, so when that happens, people don’t want to put that much effort into teaching the home language.”

“Yet, in reality, research shows that the effect is in the reverse,” Carreira said. Individuals proficient in their Heritage Language (HL) are more likely to learn English better because vocabulary and reading skills are transferable.

Carreira is co-director of the National Language Resource Center (NLRC) at UCLA and is devoted to her research on HLs with a focus on identity, resilience, and HL development and maintenance.

From a practical standpoint, Carreira’s research in the Romance, German, Russian Languages and Literature department has major applications.

A large part of her research has to do with how to create foreign language curriculum specifically for HL learners since they are not starting with a blank slate. Standard language education programs, such as Rosetta Stone or high school Spanish classes, are boring to HL learners and do not build on what they already know.

“You have to have specialized education, which involves using language in an authentic way, building literacy skills at an advanced level,” Carreira said.

Her research explores the linguistic features HL speakers’ lack – identifying their needs and strengths – to help educators create foreign language curriculum that assists HL learners so that they can get to advanced levels as quickly and as easily as possible. The research also looks at methods of teaching English to Heritage Language learners by using the HL to reinforce acquisition of language.

However, Carreira’s research also has ideological implications – to shape the way society thinks about language education, particularly as the discussion over education for immigrant children becomes more pertinent worldwide.

With her NLRC colleagues, Carreira recently published a book based on their research, entitled “The Routledge Handbook of Heritage Language Education: From innovation to program building.” The book documents the current trends in HL teaching worldwide with contributions from educators across the globe, such as in Chile, Israel and Japan. They describe the instructional challenges they face in their communities, the political realities they have encountered, and the solutions they have developed to overcome instructional barriers.

The results, Carreira said, were not surprising. No one, yet, has figured out how to do language education perfectly, and the U.S. is on par currently with other countries.

There are dangers, however, for not improving the instructional environment for HL learners. She uses the term “Subtractive Bilingualism” to explain a situation in which students do not learn either language well. This happens when learners do not get good instruction in any language including their Heritage Language, which puts children at a disadvantage both academically and culturally within their local communities. This underscores the need for strategic investment in resources for educational programs for HL learners.

Some schools within the sprawling and highly diverse Los Angeles Unified School District, such as in the communities of Mar Vista and South Pasadena, have created dual-language immersion programs where instructors teach classes in English and in the home language. Carreira said that of all bilingual education models, this model seems to be the most promising to improve bilingual literacy. However, these types of innovations require a lot of support.

“Typically what happens is you get one or two people interested in something because of research or their own personal experience, like myself, and then they shepherd the program through. However, there are some districts throughout Southern California where the majority of students are HL learners, and without those interested individuals shepherding a program, others are forced to try and figure out how to teach them,” said Carreira.

“It depends on the circumstances, but typically it needs a very committed individual or group of individuals who are willing to push this forward. It takes parental support to get these programs growing and, of course, financial support.”

Carreira is currently working on another edited volume about the instructional needs of the multilingual Los Angeles region. She hopes to include the more than 12-15 languages that are spoken in their communities to paint an accurate picture of a vast multilingual and multiethnic Los Angeles; a work which she says would be a first for Los Angeles. This work includes doing primary research on less studied languages, such as Amharic, a language of Ethiopia.

The hope is that through this research, the value and importance of HL education will come through.

“The U.S. has a great need to build capacity in the foreign languages for diplomacy, for business, education, etcetera,” said Carreira. “So HL learners are of interest to the government and to institutions of learning because you can get them to higher levels of proficiency much faster provided that you give them the right kind of instruction.”

Still, changing societal attitudes on multilingualism is an uphill climb.  For the time being, she hopes to change the attitude of HL learners and their families to understand the importance of maintaining and developing their Heritage Language, even when societal attitudes are not favorable.

“It’s getting past all the negative press on HLs and getting young people to see that there’s enormous personal, professional and practical value to maintaining and developing their HL. A personal value, as an example, is if they hear a bad comment they can dismiss it as ignorance on the part of the person saying the comment, as opposed to being something bad about themselves,” she said.