Heritage languages

Diversity is often just a concept. Many people live in a diverse town, yet never visit the “foreign” parts of it. Students can be members of a diverse class, yet never come into contact with the parts of their peers’ lives that reflect their different backgrounds.  Students with an Italian background, for example, often think that EVERYONE eats lasagna for Christmas. The exercise suggested below can highlight and enrich the meaning of the word “diverse.”

This blog has readers all over the world.  In some places the student population may be homogeneous, but in an American classroom, there are usually students with ancestors from different parts of the world, different races, and different language groups. While students with Italian ancestry may still eat lasagna for Christmas, they rarely speak more than rudimentary Italian. The exceptions are students who are only one generation away from their immigrant forebears, but even they may have had their linguistic heritage diluted by intermarriage or contact with other languages where they live or work.

By consulting the website Ethnologue, students will learn how many people in the world speak their heritage language. They can also learn what influence their heritage language has had on American Standard English, or on some other language, by Googling, for example, “Polish words in English.”  Students these days have spent a lot more time surfing the Net than I have, and will undoubtedly be more adept than I at finding the needed information.

Exercise:  Ask your students to find out where in the world their heritage language is spoken, and how many people speak it. Some students have more than one heritage language, and they can choose to report on one or all of those languages.  They should also find out what words from their language have emigrated to America (or some other country) and now are widely used in English (or some other language).  In the Polish example, we have imported babka and gherkin.  This exercise would also be useful in ESL classes, or classes where students are learning a second language.



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