Heritage Languages and Societal Needs

By | June 6, 2023

Heritage language maintenance has wider implications for our larger society. We live in a nation where multilingual speakers are needed to address the needs of more than 30 million non-English-speaking citizens, the demands of globalization, and concerns for national security.

A critical shortage of translators and interpreters exists in hospitals, courts, and businesses, in addition to more than 80 governmental agencies. Moreover, U.S. military personnel are stationed across locations where more than 140 languages are spoken, and thus need language experts to assist them in implementing peacekeeping, humanitarian, and nation-building efforts.

The situation is not getting any better; the number of agencies needing language experts has more than doubled during the past 15 years, and annually almost 35,000 governmental positions require foreign-language competence to fill, many of which currently go unfilled. Without the reinforcement of individuals with foreign-language expertise, economic, diplomatic, governmental, and military operations will be negatively affected.

Foreign-language education in the United States has been a low priority for several decades. The lack of incentive and motivation to learn a foreign language, ineffective language curricula and pedagogy, and limited resources and time have all contributed to low achievement outcomes among foreign-language learners.

A more immediate and effective approach to addressing this critical shortage of multilingual speakers may be to actively support the learning and teaching of heritage languages. This can be done without infringing on the necessary teaching of English, the nation’s first language. Heritage language speakers offer an opportune response to the linguistic needs of our nation.

Because of their existing cultural and linguistic knowledge base, they are in a stronger position with proper training to develop superior levels of proficiency in a shorter time than are traditional foreign language learners. The irony of the linguistic reality of the United States became starkly apparent immediately following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, when the government was unable to find trained translators for Farsi and Arabic, despite the large numbers of Middle Eastern immigrants living in the country.

One untapped resource in the United States is the pool of heritage language speakers. The nation’s security, stability, and vitality rest on our citizens’ understanding of different cultures and languages around the world. With each child who loses proficiency in his or her heritage language, society suffers another loss and another missed opportunity to develop a language expert.

Finally, maintenance of the heritage language also contributes to supporting the linguistic and cultural diversity of the nation. One language or culture cannot be labeled more or less valuable than another, and the diverse perspectives and funds of knowledge of each language community provide multiple vantage points that enrich our collective experience.