Kiri Lee, Heritage Language, Lehigh University
Kiri Lee

Understanding how we use language is crucial to understanding ourselves and others. A heritage language is any language which a speaker learns and uses in his or her home but which is not the primary language of the larger outside society. Questions about the fundamental nature of the human mind form one of the last uncharted frontiers of science and research by linguist Kiri Lee is shedding light on the cultural importance of language.

The co-author of Constructing the Heritage Language Learner: Knowledge, Power and New Subjectivities, Lee led a four-year study of students at a nearby Japanese weekend language school. There are about 90 such schools nationally that cater to children of native Japanese speakers. Some children might be staying in the United States  for up to five years, but some may be staying longer or permanently. For the latter group, their Japanese becomes/is "heritage language" and they need a different approach to keep their proficiency with speaking Japanese. Her work challenges the notions about bilingual speakers and where heritage language speakers fit into the traditional views of bilingual speaking. She found that the more proficient a child was in speaking Japanese, the more they viewed themselves as being native speakers of the language.

“We are interested in how the children identify themselves – are they a native speaker or are they a heritage language speaker?” says Lee, associate professor of Japanese in the department of modern languages and literatures.  “Depending on their proficiency in Japanese do they have a low self-esteem, and how they view themselves in this setting?”

Language proficiency is an important component in remaining connected to one’s culture.  Lee found that throughout the four years they were followed, students’ perspectives on their connection to Japan changed as their proficiency and maintenance of their heritage language increased.  Although they weren’t “native speakers” they could now be labeled as “heritage speakers” and they found their own identities as heritage speakers. In general, when they become more proficient linguistically and culturally, they feel more connected to their Japanese heritage. At the same time, they discover the way to connect this ability to the main-stream society in a positive way. Many of the children studied indicated they gained a sense of community and support from language schools. They are unable to find people like them in mainstream American schools, says Lee.

The field of heritage language education is an emerging field. Historically, heritage language speakers were discussed in the context of bilingual speakers.

“We found the diversity among the heritage language speakers has a strong correlation between their identity and Japanese language proficiency. Some consider themselves heritage language speakers because that’s how they communicate with their relatives in Japan. With some it has to do with identity, because you say, I’m Japanese or I have a Japanese heritage, it’s strange to say I can’t speak Japanese.”

The more confident they gain in their heritage language, the stronger desire they have to actively utilize their skills in the outside of the heritage language community, says Lee. This is why it is crucial to give appropriate language instruction to them, especially when they are in middle and high-school ages.