Although there have been improvements in the inclusion of Asian languages in bilingual programs, especially in dual language programs, these programs are often geared toward Mandarin or Cantonese languages. While any sort of inclusion is respectable, an inability to recognize and acknowledge different dialects can be considered a deficit approach to education since educators are not addressing the relationship between dialect and heritage language learners. That is, when we make the assumption that our student has a working background knowledge in a particular language, we may become agitators in the sense that we disregard dialectical differences. The student, in turn, may develop anxiety when, for example, Mandarin is incorrectly assumed (and assigned) as their heritage language, but the student has no working background knowledge of this language.
The consequences of such a gross assumption are long-standing and can last outside of the classroom. Students who speak a dialect may have experience social discrimination from students (or other people) who speak the dominant language and/or dialect; that is, there is a history of dialect-speakers, or even people who speak the dominant language with a marked accent, experiencing discrimination. As educators, we should be aware of these cultural and linguistic histories so that we maintain a culturally sustaining pedagogy, and remain cognizant of our students’ academic, social, and emotional development.
Qianqian Zhang-Wu, a doctoral candidate at Boston College, a study in press with the Bilingual Research Journal titled “Heritage Language Maintenance and Language Ideologies: A Cross-case Analysis of Three Chinese American Families,” related to this issue. The study primarily focuses on the following questions: How do Chinese-Americans of different generations view their identities and their heritage language (HL)? Which factors influence their choice to learn a particular language?
When approached with the results, Ms. Zhang-Wu concluded that “... despite its non-HL status, Mandarin is considered a powerful and important language across families, holding a higher status than other smaller Chinese dialects,” and that in order to foster the heritage language, “a more welcoming attitude toward language diversity and shared effort from society is necessary.” We can conclude from her data that there are undercurrents to Chinese dialects that may not be easily discernible to those outside of the Chinese education system or those who do not have any Chinese cultural background; moreover, the data confirms that heritage language maintenance requires more than just familial effort, but rather effort from the community (i.e. institutions).
As educators, we must remain aware of these not-so-noticeable differences so that we might provide the best, most holistic educational experiences for our students. A community founded to promote and sustain multiculturalism and multilingualism, we should also recognize when there is room for improvement. If you would like to read more about this fascinating issue, please comment!
-Melissa Hoppie, Graduate Student Researcher with Qianqian Zhang-Wu, Doctoral Graduate Researcher