Reconstructing Bridges: Heritage Language Education of Asian Americans

By Scott Berghegger
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Language use is a major factor in defining one’s cultural identity. People learn slang, lingo, jargon, idiomatic phrases, and other language tools, and with them participate in a cultural, social environment in which they can thrive. For ethnic minorities, however, there is the additional problem of the “heritage language.” A heritage language refers to “any ancestral language such as indigenous, colonial, and immigrant languages, which may or may not be a language regularly used in the home and the community” (Kim, 2003). For Asian Americans, and in particular Asian American immigrants, the prospect of learning or re-learning a heritage language raises questions as to their cultural identity. Between the widely differing cultures of America and East Asia, Asian Americans’ language use in and out of the home constructs an identity that portrays them as fundamentally Asian, or as fundamentally American.

To assess the bilingual language patterns of a very small sample of Asian Americans at Clark, I sent three members of the Clark community an email survey, asking them to comment on their uses of English and their particular heritage language. To create this survey I referred to studies of heritage language in Korean American high school and college students, as well as studies on patterns of Asian heritage language retention and attrition. All participants in the survey were female; they comprised of two students and one professor. One student, Rebecca, claimed Korean as her heritage language; the other, Juli, claimed Cantonese, the widespread dialect of southern China. The professor, Bridget, who incidentally teaches English, claimed Chinese as her heritage language and did not denote the dialect she speaks. Rebecca was born in New Jersey, while Juli was born in a small village in southern China and Bridget in Taipei, Taiwan. Both Juli and Bridget immigrated to the U.S. when they were children.

For all three, English is dominant in their everyday lives at school, but among their parents they switch to their heritage languages. Rebecca’s and Bridget’s parents are bilingual; however, Juli’s mother’s grasp of English is poor. Her father has some knowledge of English, but once Juli was fluent in her new language and actively using English in advanced schooling, Cantonese once again became the primary language of communication in her home. That all three speak their particular heritage language at home is not surprising. Across the board, the rate of heritage languages spoken at home by Asian Americans is very high; according to Johnson, “[t]he large proportion of Chinese Americans who are foreign-born (69%) contributes to the high vitality of the Chinese language as seen in the large proportion (84%) of Chinese Americans who speak Chinese in the home environment” (Johnson, 2000, p. 227). The rate of Korean Americans speaking Korean at home is similarly high (p. 218).

Despite speaking their heritage languages often, mostly to their families, the participants did not claim absolute bilingual fluency. While all three are fluent in conversational and scholarly English, Rebecca and Bridget admitted to poor reading and writing skills in Korean and Chinese, respectively. Juli made no mention of her Cantonese literacy, but mentioned that her Cantonese speech was only conversational and not scholarly. Also unlike other participants, Juli showed an interest in Japanese, not her own heritage language, but, like Cantonese, a character-based, decidedly foreign but Asian nonetheless:

"For me, speaking fluently (which I am not) in my native language is enough for me. Japanese is my interest. Maybe I’ve adopted the American value of individuality but I feel that my interest is more important than what I “should” learn."

Juli positions herself as both Asian and American, but grounded in the culture of the latter, “adopting the American values” of individuality and pan-Asianness. Certainly she does not view all Asians as one background or culture, but her interest in Japanese, today a language of power and commerce derived mainly from Mandarin Chinese, reveals something about wanting to know more about other parts of Asia, and perhaps, more about her “Asian self.”

Juli also states that she feels her interests in other cultures besides that of her heritage are more important than what she ‘should’ learn, meaning, what her parents deem she should learn. Indeed, as noted by Hinton, “[f]or many students, parental insistence on retaining the language and values of the old country became the source of intergenerational conflict” (1999). Part of this insistence of heritage language retention was put into practice with weekend heritage language schooling, part of the structure of their American lives (Brecht & Ingold, 2002). Rebecca and Juli attended heritage language and culture schools on the weekends, but both express resentment toward their time spent learning about their heritage cultures. Rebecca says she “absolutely hated it” because while she was enrolled in 6th grade in her English-speaking school, she was placed in the 3rd grade class at Korean weekend school and “was forced to hang out with kids much younger than [she].”

She was embarrassed about her inability to grasp the complexities of her heritage language, especially when surrounded b students three years younger. Juli expresses her lack of motivation to learn Chinese, as she had just gotten to the point of “adequacy” in English:

"I was mentally tired and didn’t see learning Chinese as that important. I was in elementary school (6th grade?) so I wasn’t thinking about the future or my “heritage” or anything."

While Rebecca and Juli balanced regular schooling with heritage language schooling, Bridget reveals that while she did not attend special Chinese weekend school, her bilingual parents stressed Chinese at home once they felt it was under-spoken or not spoken at all. All three sets of parents showed similar encouragement to pass on their heritage culture to their daughters.

At the same time, Rebecca and Juli had parents who pushed them toward fluency in English. Since their mainstream schooling in the U.S. was English-only, they had to learn English in order to stay competitive in the academic community. Juli says that her mother, who, despite being a U.S. citizen, has very limited English proficiency, impelled her to learn English, as it was the only way to be successful in America. The learning of English is not only useful as an academic and commercial tool — the pressure on Asian Americans, and on all immigrants and ethnic minorities, to be fluent in English has obvious social implications as well.

The Japanese American experience of internment during World War II is a lucid example of America’s insistence on its citizenry’s fluency in the unofficial national language: speaking English was one way to fit into American society and prove loyalty to the United States (Johnson, p. 228). Juli says that her father would give her English vocabulary to study, and would quiz her every week. Depending on how well she performed on these quizzes, she was rewarded with money — a very stark metaphor of how a mastery of English can propel one to success in America.

Rebecca, Juli, and Bridget all show an interest in reclaiming their heritage language. Rebecca says that had she the time and money, she “would love to relearn the Korean language.” Juli enrolled in Chinese classes to fill her high school language requirement. However, the classes focused on Mandarin Chinese, a variety similar in written language to Juli’s native Cantonese but very dissimilar in spoken language. She says she read and wrote Mandarin in “a very elementary way,” and “wasn’t very good” at writing or speaking the classroom dialect. Bridget took intermediate Chinese classes in college but retains only moderate literacy and almost no writing proficiency. Most Asian American students do not have the chance to learn their heritage language until college, and if the heritage language is not taught with vigor at home, they most likely enroll in these classes with limited or no proficiency.

In an English-dominated culture, bilingualism is not always seen as a social and cultural asset if one is to fully attain “American” status — though many Asian American students take pride in their heritage, they must balance their or their parents’ native culture with the one in which they currently live. Some students learning their heritage language see their heritage identity as an asset, and argue that bilingualism is not un-American (Hinton, 1999).

While retaining their American identity, Cho (2000) finds that those who have developed their heritage language have a stronger ethnic identity and are more strongly connected to their ethnic group; Rebecca’s yearning to learn Korean so that she can “fully express herself” corroborates this claim. However, Juli’s turn toward other Asian languages belies her ties to the Cantonese tradition and is perhaps a search for something pan-Asian, a broad culture unlike the American one she has been bred into. Bridget does not claim a connection to her ancestral Chinese culture, but instead attempted to relearn her heritage language to maintain her memory of her Chinese legacy:

"[My attempt to relearn my heritage language was] more of a preservation of what I used to know and less of a connection to something “ancestral”; if there’s a sense of connection, it is to the Chinese and Chinese-American communities to which I currently belong, rather to a vague, nostalgic notion of my “Chinese ancestry.”

In regards to the establishment of cultural identity, learning a heritage language “can help one retain a strong sense of identity to one’s own ethnic group” (Cho, p. 333). Heritage language learning is used by Asian American students as a symbol of the “journey to find out who they are” (Kim, p. 8). The personal decision to learn a heritage language, even after parent-decreed heritage weekend schooling, often leads to a firmer sense of self, not only as a member of an Asian community, but also as a bilingual American. Reconnecting with and understanding ancestry and community is the driving force behind heritage language learning, especially in Asian cultures where family and education are held sacred.

If the goal of a heritage language learner is to connect with the past, talk with other members of an Asian speech community, or simply to be proficient in a language other than English, breaking down what Juli calls the “quasi-language-barrier” between Asia and America, bridging the gap between cultures, not only functions to link parent with child — it also serves as a metaphor for the bilingual Asian American, rich in heritage, culture, and identity.


Brecht, R. D., & C. W. Ingold. (2002). Tapping a National Resource: Heritage Languages in the United States. Retrieved 19 November, 2005, from

Cho, G. (2000). The Role of Heritage Language in Social Interactions and Relationships: Reflections from a Language Minority Group. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(4), 333-348.

Hinton, L. (1999). Involuntary Language Loss Among Immigrants: Asian-American Linguistic Autobiographies. Retrieved 19 November, 2005, from

Johnson, F. (2000). Speaking Culturally: Language Diversity in the United States.   Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Kim, H. (2003). Profiles and perspectives of heritage Korean learners. Retrieved 19 November, 2005, from

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