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Community language schools: A rich and diverse resource flying under the radar
UCLA graduate student and conference organizer Calvin Ho.

Community language schools: A rich and diverse resource flying under the radar

The UCLA conference brought together teachers and administrators of community language schools with local faculty and graduate student researchers. Some 10,000 community schools exist in the U.S.

Far from being simply language schools, these organizations also provide a space for community events, a cultural environment for immigrants and their children and even sociocultural support for immigrant parents.


International Institute, UCLA — Approximately 10,000 heritage language programs throughout the United States offer instruction in some 200 heritage languages, said Joy Kreeft Peyton from the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC.

Peyton gave the keynote speech at the conference, “Challenges and Achievements in Community Language Schools,” organized by the UCLA-based National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) on Saturday, April 13, 2012. The conference brought together community language school teachers and administrators with UCLA faculty and graduate student researchers from numerous departments who are interested in these schools.

Community schools offer instruction to children who grow up with a language other than English at home, but receive most of their education in English and are therefore English dominant. Most heritage speakers have listening and some spoken proficiency in their heritage language, but have limited or no literacy skills.

Community language schools fulfill many functions

Far from being simply language schools, these organizations also provide a space for community events, such as celebrations of cultural holidays, a cultural environment for immigrants and their children, and even, as Claire Chik of the NHLRC pointed out, sociocultural support for immigrant parents.

Speaking about a Saturday Chinese-language school in the greater L.A. region, Chik, who organized the conference with Calvin Ho, noted that the school served as a place where parents could meet other immigrants and speak their native tongue, exchange information on life in the United States and volunteer in an environment in which they had confidence.

Parents identified this school as a “pseudo Chinese village” that could influence their children to feel and act Chinese. Some parents noted that even if their children did not learn Chinese, attending the school would draw them closer to Chinese culture, a point echoed by UCLA graduate student Fang-Tzu Hsu (Social Science and Comparative Education).


NHLRC Director Olga Kagan. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Although academic language programs aim to impart proficiency in a foreign language, Olga Kagan observed that community language schools frequently seek to maintain students’ familiarity with a given culture and language, rather than impart proficiency per se. Kagan is Director of both the UCLA Center for World Languages and the NHLRC.

Frequently, she said, parents seek to create a foundation in a heritage language with the hope that their children will study it formally later in life. Many conference speakers concurred, noting that parents often enroll their children in these programs simply to give them a deeper appreciation of their culture so they don’t “hate being [nationality].”

As became clear in presentation after presentation, these schools serve as a place where heritage language speakers can work out complicated bicultural identities, together with friends from the same background (i.e., those who either speak a heritage language at home or have parents who do). As Bob Uriu of the Japanese-language school Orange Coast Gakuen noted, it is often the camaraderie of fellow students and their close friendships that keep students enrolled in heritage language schools during adolescence.

Multiple challenges and conflicting expectations

Most community language schools are all-volunteer organizations with small budgets; teachers, administrators and parents contribute significant personal time to operations. Schools generally rent facilities and lack adequate curriculum materials or instructors trained in modern teaching methods, much less heritage language pedagogy.


Keynote speaker Joy Kreeft Peyton speaks at the NHLRC conference on April 13, 2013. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Conflicting parental motivations and variation among students complicate the administrative challenges. A number of speakers, including Bob Uriu, UCLA graduate student Calvin Ho (Sociology), and CSU Long Beach Professor Masako Douglas, pointed out that many community language schools now serve students who have no proficiency in the language being taught.

This category of student includes children of second- and third-generation Americans who no longer speak the heritage language, adopted children whose American parents wish to expose them to their culture of origin and American students and businessmen wishing to study a foreign language.

The learning needs of these students — considered students of a foreign language — differ substantially from those of heritage learners. Yet few community schools have the resources or teachers to provide differentiated teaching.

In addition, many immigrant parents are wedded to the instructional materials and pedagogy of schools in their respective home countries, which are typically unsuitable for students in the United States. Such programs are not based on student-centered or activity-based learning, nor do they use materials that have cultural relevance to American students.

As Professor Douglas pointed out, home-country curricula also neglect the topics covered in American schools. The result: growing resistance of students to attending weekend language programs (a virtual “war” according to several speakers!).

And while some parents do not want their children to study a heritage language in a rigorous program, others — including transnational parents who intend to return to their country of origin — want their children to achieve full proficiency.

The Orange Coast Gakuen chose to abandon the Kyoto System and develop a differentiated approach to teaching Japanese that would address its students’ varied needs. According to Bob Uriu, the school was extraordinarily lucky to have the assistance of three specialists in teaching Japanese as a heritage language (all professors at CSULB) throughout this process.


Bob Uriu, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Orange Coast Gakuen. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

The shift from teaching Japanese as a native language to teaching it as a heritage language was a difficult adjustment, said Uriu, and a number of parents abandoned the school. Nevertheless, Uriu believed the school has successfully forged a new identity. He conceded, however, that the task has been particularly tough on the teachers, who have had both to learn a new teaching methodology and to collect and prepare materials for new textbooks.

In addition to language schools, some cultural organizations have been formed to help immigrant youth in the United States explore their bicultural identities apart from their parents, who can be riven by political trauma and division. This is the express aim of the Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB), said Mana Kharaazi, who works at the mentor-led volunteer organization. IAAB’s activities allow young Iranians to explore a cultural identity that they feel they must hide in American society.

Examples of language schools in the greater Los Angeles region

Some language schools face additional hurdles. In the case of Armenian, UCLA graduate student Shushan Karapetian (Near Eastern Languages and Cultures) noted that the modern language has two standards—Western (spoken in the diaspora) and Eastern (spoken in Armenia)—and three orthographies.

Immigrants in Los Angeles, said Karapetian, come from both Armenia and other countries, including Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. Whereas most Los Angeles Armenian schools teach Western Armenian, current demographics favor Eastern Armenian speakers.

Perhaps an even greater challenge for Armenian schools, most of which are day schools, is that many students are children of heritage language speakers and do not themselves speak the language. The curriculum is taught in English, said Karapetian, and Armenian is taught as a foreign language.


Maria Carreira of CSU Long Beach addresses the conference. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

With respect to Spanish, while it is the majority non-English language in Los Angeles and nationally, few Spanish community language schools exist in Southern California. CSULB Professor Maria Carreira pointed out that although 47 percent of the population of L.A. County is Latino, the area has only two community language schools for Spanish.

La escuela argentina de los Angeles issues its graduates a diploma that allows them to attend college in Argentina, and “Grupo Educa,” founded by Latino parents in Los Angeles who wanted their children to use Spanish in and outside of the home and to have fun doing it, offers programs taught by credentialed U.S. teachers with bilingual and bicultural skills.

But opportunities for learning and using Spanish are available from other sources. The Los Angeles Diocese of the Catholic Church, for example, offers over 200 religious education classes for children that are conducted in Spanish. In addition, many heritage speakers of Spanish in Los Angeles improve their proficiency through involvement in cultural clubs focused on dancing, sports and communities of origin.

Several community schools in Southern California also offer instruction in Russian, including The Russian School of Orange County, which teaches 23 subjects in Russian to Southland students, said teacher Alina Klimovich. In addition to its year-long classes, The Russian School also offers language-immersion summer camps.

No unified policy for language instruction in Southern California public schools

Olga Kagan cited U.S. Census Bureau data indicating that 20 percent of the U.S. population aged 5 years and older speak a language other than English at home (in California, the proportion was 43 percent, and in L.A. and Orange Counties, 56.4 percent and 44.4 percent, respectively). Some L.A. County cities even depart from the norm of “English only” as the largest category of speakers: in Alhambra, Chinese speakers are the largest group and in Glendale, it is Armenian speakers.

Based on her research and interviews with local teachers and administrators, Kagan concluded that Los Angeles and Orange County public schools have no master plan for offering world languages, particularly heritage languages. Moreover, these school systems are not addressing the needs of heritage speakers from three large immigrant populations in the region: speakers of Persian, Russian and Tagalog.

Joy Peyton commented that in spite of the “treasure” of community language schools, education policy makers appear unaware—and, in some cases, uninterested in—schooling available to immigrant students outside of public schools.

The NHLRC conference was held to contribute to an understanding of that treasure; it followed a fall 2012 round-table discussion with local community school representatives. More such projects will follow, as area community schools have become a rich source of data and analysis for Los Angeles researchers: eight UC graduate students in a variety of fields (seven from UCLA) gave conference presentations, and all are writing dissertations based on their research.