Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Heritage Language Development: Exhortation or Good Stories?

 Lao, C. and Krashen, S. 2008. Heritage language development: Exhortation or good stories? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 4 (2): 17-18.

Despite the well-researched advantages, not all young people are interested in continuing to develop their heritage language. Their apathy may be due to "ethnic avoidence," a preference for the new culture over the old (Tse, 1988), and/or it may be due to teasing by more advanced speakers in reaction to the young person's imperfect attempts to speak the language (Krashen, 1998). These barriers, plus a lack of input, have been hypothesized to be the cause of low heritage language proficiency.

We present here a case in which interest in the heritage language was stimulated in a 12-year-old boy, Daniel, who came to the United States at age eight from China. Daniel's Mandarin proficiency was clearly declining, despite his parents' efforts: They sent Daniel to a Chinese heritage language school for three hours each Saturday. Moreover, it was clear that Daniel was not interested in Mandarin.

Daniel was recently enrolled in a 4-week summer Mandarin program in San Francisco aimed at foreign language students of Mandarin who had had several years of Mandarin instruction in school and heritage language speakers such as Daniel. Daniel was among those with the highest proficiency in Mandarin in the class, having completed the fourth grade in China.

Daniel was clearly not enthusiastic about the summer program, and did not participate in class discussion and other activities. He told his teacher that he found the entire program boring, far below his level, and that he couldn't learn anything new.  The summer program included a great deal of free reading time, and the classroom had a book collection, but Daniel did not find any of the selections of great interest, with the exception of Old Master Q, a series with about 150 titles that are simple and easy to read, with many wordless volumes.

Daniel's teacher was very frustrated with him and asked him to consider leaving the program, and Daniel, in fact, was eager to do so.

When program administrators learned about this, they asked Daniel to come to the Program office. Instead of lecturing Daniel and urging him to stay, the program director gave him a few books to take home from the collection in her office.

Among the books Daniel took was an illustrated chapter book titled "The Stories of A Fan Ti" (this is the English translation). The next day, Daniel’s mother told the program director that Daniel loved the book. The book was a bit beyond his level, but thanks to the illustrations and his ability to understand some of the text, Daniel was very interested in the story, and begged his mother to read it to him.

The program director then loaned Daniel more books from the "A Fan Ti" series, in comic book format. Daniel found the stories tremendously entertaining and begged his mother to read more, from two books to five stories everyday.

Daniel’s mother found that it took her a lot of time to read the stories so she asked Daniel to help with chores while she read to him. This is a reversal of the usual practice of rewarding children to read; in this case, the reward for doing chores is being read to. Both Daniel and his mother were quite happy with this arrangement.

Daniel was not aware that his Mandarin was improving again. He was, of course, only interested in the stories. 

"A Fan Ti" was Daniel's "home run book" (Trelease, 2006), a reading experience that re-stimulated his interest in reading in Mandarin in general.  This case suggests that the answer to encouraging heritage language development is not to exhort children to study the language, not to send them to dull classes, but simply to find some interesting stories. Their focus will be on the stories and heritage language development will be the incidental result.

Post-script: One month later.

According to Daniel's mother, he is now reading less in Chinese. Daniel has now heard and read nearly all of the A Fan Ti stories available, and has no easy access to the Old Master Q series. Although he is a comic book reader in English, he has not found any Chinese comic series he is interested in. Clearly, one home run book is not enough.  It needs to be followed with a steady and easy supply of compelling and comprehensible reading material. We know of no heritage language program that is taking this requirement seriously.


Krashen, S. 1998. Language shyness and heritage language development. In S. Krashen, L. Tse, & J. McQuillan (Eds.) Heritage Language Development. Culver City: Language Education Associates. pp. 15-29..
Trelease, J. 2006. The Read-Aloud handbook. New York: Penguin. Sixth Edition.
Tse, L. 1998. Ethnic identity formation and Its Implications for Heritage Language Development. In S. Krashen, L. Tse, & J. McQuillan (Eds.) Heritage Language Development. Culver City: Language
Education Associates. pp. 41-49.

1 comment:

  1. This study has interesting applications for efforts to revive indigenous languages. There definitely can be more enthusiasm and motivation for youth to learn their "heritage" language when what they're doing is saving it (not a relevant factor for, say, Mandarin). Nevertheless, I'm sure there are plenty of youth who just have no interest in learning their people's language, even if it is in danger, and unfortunately—for obvious reasons—there is no great volume of reading available in most any North American indigenous languages, especially the most endangered.

    Do you think revival efforts really need to prioritize writing more books in their languages?