Heritage language educators worldwide held their first globally-oriented academic conference at UCLA last weekend, Feb. 19-21, in Covel Commons. Three hundred participants from 20 countries, representing languages that are threatened and stigmatized in local and national settings, sought to identify best practices for instruction and to raise awareness of their efforts.

"A language is endangered when it disappears from the life of a particular young person…. That's a loss to us," said Stanford University Professor Guadalupe Valdés. "And so if we saw ourselves as being concerned with making sure that a language passes to another generation, we have a lot in common. Whether our language is a big language or whether our language is a little language, it's still the same battle."

 Guadalupe Valdés

Guadalupe Valdés

A leading scholar in the study of bilingualism, or the many ways in which people acquire and use two languages over time, Valdés on Friday accepted the first Joshua Fishman Award for Outstanding Contributions and Leadership in the Heritage Language Field from the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA (NHLRC), the event sponsor.

Receiving an award in the name of Professor Fishman, "the giant in the field," was especially meaningful, she said. "He's the person who taught us almost everything we know, about caring, about language maintenance and shift, small languages and large languages, and what are the kinds of things we need to do to promote intergenerational transmission."

Though all conference participants shared these broad concerns, they were an exceedingly diverse group. The first question from the audience on Friday was asked in American Sign Language, with an interpreter's help, by Gary Malkowski, a former Canadian politician who sat on one of two conference panels related to sign language preservation. Other breakout sessions were devoted, for example, to languages in diaspora, such as Filipino and Tamil, and to Tanzanian heritage languages.

Professor Janeth Velásquez came from her public university in Bogota, Colombia, to spread the word about "the exclusion of indigenous peoples" from national language planning there. Colombian legislators have set 2019 as the target for Spanish-English bilingualism in the country, without considering the fate of some 65 languages such as Wayuu, which is spoken in far northeastern Colombia. Citing constitutional protections, the Wayuu people "decided to go against the policy" and are teaching Spanish and Wayuu instead, according to Velásquez.

Ya-ling Chang of Taiwan's National I-lan University offered an analysis of where and when Pangcah speakers use that Austronesian aboriginal language in Taiwan. Pangcah is one of the hundreds upon hundreds of languages that are falling victim to so-called language shift, in which a dominant tongue, here Taiwanese, replaces a heritage language in many settings, resulting in diminished use and loss.

"Those who are around their 30s understand the language, but they do not speak it fluently," she said.

As at previous NHLRC events, many of the assembled scholars were experts in U.S. heritage languages, or all of the non-English languages – like Hindi, Polish and Vietnamese – that are not in fact "foreign" to this country. In addition, at least one company representative, Marion Bittinger of software maker Rosetta Stone, was on hand to discuss instructional programs designed to teach endangered North American indigenous languages. Native groups put up funds to develop products on four languages, and Rosetta subsidized two more, most recently Navajo.

"They are the owners of the software," she said.

Netta Avineri, a UCLA graduate student in applied linguistics, shared her research on Yiddish in Southern California. In classroom settings, she found, it is a challenge to address the different needs of students who speak some Yiddish, others who are connected to Yiddish culture by ancestry and family lore, and still others with no Yiddish heritage at all.

Yiddish happens to be the dearest language of all for Fishman, who is now an emeritus professor at Yeshiva University. As he explained in a telephone interview from his home in the Bronx, N.Y., he did not use the term "heritage" when he was effectively laying the groundwork for the field in the early 1960s.

"The best I could come up with at the time, not being very good at inventing terms, was 'non-English languages…,'" he said. "And that's not nearly as euphonious, it's not as catchy, it doesn't imply the kind of facilitative emotional attachment that 'heritage' does. Heritage is a term that involves your inheritance, something that you have thanks to the kindness of your ancestors. It involves personal, intergenerational ties. That's a very good term to have."

NHLRC Director Olga Kagan, a leading heritage language pedagogue, said she expects the Fishman Award to be conferred again at future conferences.

"We want to recognize vision and pioneering effort of researchers and educators who have already contributed to the field," Kagan said. "But I also see this award as an incentive for young scholars and graduate students writing dissertations. The field of heritage language research is still small, even though it is growing."