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Research Priorities: Heritage Languages in Policy Texts

Joseph Lo Bianco, Language Australia

While analyzing efforts to support threatened languages, Fishman (2001) notes that maintenance of heritage languages often seems like anti-modern parochialism in contrast to the dominant discourses of western modernity. Intergenerational transfer of minority languages within families and public institutions runs counter to the discourse in policy texts and to prevailing attitudes in public life. In English-dominant societies, the discourses of western modernity mediated by English are more acute. Do English-speaking nations share an underlying broad English “linguistic culture” (Schiffman 1996) or do particular national characteristics and national policy styles have more impact? The linguistic demography of the major English-speaking societies has some similarities. The societies share the global meta-lect, most have experienced extensive non-English speaking immigration, most have indigenous languages communities, and all have foreign language interests and needs.

The representation of these languages (immigrant, indigenous, foreign) in policy contexts, alongside dominant English, would constitute an interesting research project and promise to cast light on the challenges and prospects for policies that are supportive of heritage language maintenance. Although Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States differ in relation to socio-legal context, the examination would test the extent of shared underlying attitudes and ideologies towards multilingualism that derive from English philosophical tradition. Three related studies arise from these points and are proposed for research:

1. A comparative analysis of policy texts across education systems of Australia, the US and the UK.

In previous work (Lo Bianco 2001a), I focused on broad national policy texts speculating that a shared inheritance of political philosophy may flow through to views and practices of linguistic culture.

I suggest examination of major policy texts with a matrix of key words and associations to identify how minority language issues are actually taken up in national policies, using a critical discourse framework for the study. Another option is for controlled contrasts governed by a particular time period (say the 1990s in which global population movements accelerated, contributing to anxiety around national symbols, like English) and jurisdictional domain, such as early schooling or higher education.

2. A study of the claimed benefits for language learning as proposed in mainstream policy texts.

This study would compare and contrast prevailing categories of benefits of language learning, so that associations would be revealed concerning where policy texts imagine learned languages are used, with what interlocutors, and for what purposes. It is likely that interesting information concerning differential evaluations of bilingualism would emerge, such that the language ideologies of bilingualism coming from immigrant language maintenance (Zelasko 1991; Lo Bianco 2001b) compared to bilingualism from acquired foreign languages can be tracked in policy discourses and texts. A matrix for examining these texts would be needed and the claimed benefits (e.g. cultural insight, enhanced meta-linguistic awareness, practical use of an additional language, better acquisition of English etc.) could be correlated to other prevailing policy texts, or discourses, about education in general.

For example, in Australia during the late 1990s, two major discourses about language issues were prominent. First, the teaching of Asian languages was premised on overarching policies of economic integration with “the region” (North and Southeast Asia), alongside a politically controversial “crisis in English literacy” discourse based on the need for small economies to invest in human capital for the increasingly cut-throat globalized economy. These two “ meta” policy goals (Asia-literacy for all/English literacy for economic competitiveness) produced considerable reaction from parents and teachers, many of whom regarded them as contradictory.

A similar pattern occurred in Britain with the introduction of the National Curriculum. Though largely motivated by demands to raise English literacy standards, the National Curriculum came to impact directly on languages. Increasing European integration produced pressure for teaching official European languages, while advocates of immigrant and indigenous languages were required to reconstruct their case.

3. A study of the policy culture and process.

It has long struck me (as an Australian traveling and working in the United States and in Britain) that we actually mean different things when we discuss rights in general and language rights in particular (concepts like multiculturalism, diversity, multilingualism, English as the national language, as well as the role of policy making, of courts, of law, and compulsion/choice). A major difference is the expected or appropriate role of the state and the role and meaning of litigation and legislation as policy processes.

Foundational national ideologies make the relative construction of many issues different. Language-planning studies need to be more sensitive to the various modes of social change and reaction. It would be useful to contrast what the word “heritage” language implies and what sense it carries across different legal and social contexts, by looking at specific programs of HL maintenance and regeneration, the policies that have generated these programs, and the discourse and attitudes that accompany them.

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