Heritage Language Survey Report

Sec. 1/10: Introduction

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April 2009
The Heritage Language Learner Survey:
Report on the Preliminary Results

A Project of the National Heritage Language Resource Center
Research Team:
Maria Carreira, CSULB (Project co-director); Linda Jensen, UCLA; Olga Kagan, UCLA (Project director)
Research Assistant: Matthew J. Giangrande

In the United States, a heritage language speaker is an individual who is exposed to a language other than English at home but educated primarily in English.

A heritage language learner (HLL) is a student who takes a K-16 or a community school language class in the home language.

The language spoken at home can be referred to as a heritage language (HL).

Purpose and methodology of the project

The goal of this online survey  is to collect information from heritage language learners (HLLs) currently enrolled in post-secondary heritage language courses to better understand their backgrounds, attitudes, and goals in studying their heritage language.  In so doing, we hope to inform the National Heritage Language Resource Center’s (NHLRC) design of heritage language curricula and professional development materials. 

Research on HLLs indicates that their linguistic abilities are different enough from those of traditional students of world languages in U.S. classrooms to warrant distinct teaching approaches (see Brinton & Kagan, et al. (2008), He & Yiao (2007), Kagan & Rifkin (2000), Kagan & Dillon (2001/2003), Kondo-Brown (2006), Kondo-Brown & Brown (2007), Peyton, Ranard, & McGinnis (2001), and Roca & Colombi (2003)). Despite the range of heritage languages and the particularity of each language, research has found enough commonalities that heritage language knowledge can be considered a system. 

To date few curricular models are available for instructors and administrators who seek to initiate or improve programs for HLLs.  This survey addresses this gap by showing characteristics and issues that define HLLs across languages, thus improving our ability to design and recommend curriculum for them. 

The survey is based on a previous survey that investigated the reading skills of HLLs (Jensen & Llosa, 2007).  The current survey has a broader scope and thus includes questions about writing, listening, and speaking as well as reading.  The survey also includes questions on motivation, attitudes, and interaction with the community.

We piloted the survey in January and February, 2007.  Ten respondents took the survey while a research assistant observed.  They were then asked whether the survey items were clear and comprehensive.  The responses were analyzed and the survey was modified accordingly. 

In January 2007 students in UCLA heritage language classes completed the survey.  In March, the survey was opened to universities across the country.  We found respondents by contacting instructors directly, posting LISTSERV announcements, and advertising on the NHLRC website.  Many instructors administered the survey in a computer lab. Some instructors assigned the survey as homework. 

1 To administer the survey we contracted with SurveyMonkey, a company that hosts surveys written by its clients, collects and stores responses, and provides analytical tools to analyze the results.

1. What is your heritage language?

Heritage Language    
Amharic 13 0.76%
Arabic 28 1.65%
Armenian 57 3.35%
Cantonese 174 10.23%
Gujarati 10 0.59%
Hindi/Urdu 24 1.41%
Ilocano 9 0.53%
Japanese 19 1.12%
Korean 134 7.88%
Mandarin 268 15.76%
Persian 60 3.53%
Russian 185 10.88%
Spanish 396 23.28%
Tagalog 111 6.53%
Thai 11 0.65%
Vietnamese 113 6.64%
Other 89 5.23%

As of this writing, 1701 students have responded to the survey. The distribution of languages represented is likely to reflect the University of California’s demographics, as well as the classes offered by the UC system to heritage speakers.

The survey revealed not only commonalities among HLLs and heritage language learning contexts, but also language-specific particularities.  While the current report focuses on traits that all HLLs share, the next phase of analysis will focus on the backgrounds and needs of students of specific language heritage such as Spanish and Arabic.