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Community-Based Heritage Language Schools: A Rich Part of the Language Landscape

Joy Kreeft Peyton, Senior Fellow, Center for Applied Linguistics
Marta McCabe, Founder and President, Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina
Ana Lucia Lico, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Brazilian Association for Culture and Education (ABRACE)
Tommy Lu, Ex-Officio Board Director, Chinese School of Delaware
Renate Ludanyi, President, German Language School Conference (GLSC); President and Principal, German School of Connecticut
Sigrid Belluz, Vice-President, German Language School Conference (GLSC); Principal, Deutsche Schule, Charlotte, NC

Community-based heritage language schools have been in operation since the early years of the founding of this country. These schools, which teach the language that the students speak at home or in their community, are an important part of the language education enterprise in the United States. They operate outside the public and private school system, during the weekend or on weekday afternoons or evenings. Classes are typically held in rented spaces in churches, school buildings, and community centers. They are often founded and run by members of the community, who have come to the United States from the country where the language is spoken and who speak the language. Most programs begin with early childhood classes, for children of pre-school age and younger, and may include toddler classes, in which parents who speak the language participate with their young children. Many programs continue through the elementary, middle, and high school years.

German kindergartens began in the United States in 1856, as a private German heritage language neighborhood school in Watertown, Wisconsin. Subsequently, many more German heritage language schools were and still are being established. Today, about 7,000 children receive German language instruction in these schools, primarily on Saturdays.

Renate Ludanyi, President, German Language School Conference; President and Principal, German School of Connecticut

Joshua Fishman, a renowned researcher of and advocate for these programs, once said, “If we define heritage languages as languages other than English that have relevance to the learners, we find schools that, throughout this country’s history, have been devoted to teaching these languages, developing literacy, and promoting education through these languages (2001, p. 81).” Based on Joshua’s Fishman’s documentation of programs in the 1960s and 1980s (Fishman, 1966, 1985; Fishman & Nahirny, 1966) and our current work with these programs, we estimate that there are approximately 8,000 community-based heritage language schools in the United States, teaching over 200 languages. 

However, there is very little statistical and comparative information available about these schools: How many there are across the United States, where they are, what languages are taught, how the schools are run and funded, who the teachers are, who the student population is, and what outcomes they are achieving. Language-specific organizations often have information about schools that teach their language, but information about all of the schools, across languages, does not yet exist.

Data about language teaching and learning in the United States are collected on state and national levels, and these data are included in a recent report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century (2017). However, the report focuses primarily on language education in the public and private school system and includes limited or no information about heritage language education in community-based schools.

Recommendations 2 and 3 in the report include these important goals:

  • Draw on local and regional resources by working with heritage language communities and other local experts to create, in-school and after-school instructional programming.
  • Encourage heritage language speakers to pursue further instruction in their heritage languages.
  • Provide more language learning opportunities for heritage speakers in classroom or school settings.

Community-based heritage language schools want to be vital partners in accomplishing these goals. It is time for us to learn about each other, collaborate, and document the rich work that the leaders of and participants in these schools are doing. A few of these schools are mentioned in the America’s Languages report. This is a wonderful start! There is a lot more to be done together.

Ways to Collaborate to Understand and Make Visible Community-based Schools

The National Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools is engaged in the following activities. We would love for you to join us!

Learning About Community-Based Schools: A National Survey

The Coalition has developed a national survey to document every community-based heritage language school across the United States. This is the first survey that attempts to reach out to and document this specific set of schools and students. The results provide important information about these schools and will allow us to showcase their key features, challenges, and accomplishments. So far, the Coalition has collected information about 232 schools, teaching 35 languages (July, 2018). There is still a long way to go to document the thousands of programs that exist!

Survey responses show that many programs have been in operation fewer than 10 years (which confirms reports that there has been a recent surge in the number of these programs), meet for 2-3 hours on a weekend, and provide between 5 and 10 classes. The majority of programs charge tuition of $50-$750 per year, and 60% receive funding from other sources than tuition fees. Some programs prepare students for various U.S. tests and exams, such as the AP and the AAT, or for an exam developed and used in the country where the language is spoken. Some of the students who continue in the program through high school qualify to study in that country, based on their test results.

To gain valuable international exposure, an increasing number of U.S. German heritage language students study in their home countries, either as undergraduates or in graduate schools. They take very demanding tests that certify their language ability as a prerequisite for language study in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland. Upon graduation, they return to the U.S. and fill the ranks of global professionals and intellectuals who can serve as liaisons between the U.S. and German-speaking countries in Europe.

Sigrid Belluz, Vice-President, German School Conference; Principal, Deutsche Schule, Charlotte NC

Survey results to date ( show which schools are documented, with the languages they teach, their locations, and other information.

Can you please document your program, at this link and reach out to others in your language community to document theirs? It will take only a few minutes. (If you would like to send a message about the survey to your language community, we will be happy to send you a brief message that you can use. Just let us know!) Imagine the rich information that all of us will have about the features and accomplishments of these schools, and the connections that we can make across schools, if they are all visible!

Community-based heritage language schools are the hidden treasure in our neighborhoods and across the country. We will all benefit when we uncover and celebrate this treasure.

Tommy Lu, Ex-Officio Board Director, Chinese School of Delaware

Making Connections

Collaborating With Language Representatives

We are seeking to make strong connections with community-based schools teaching in all of the languages taught in the United States. One way to do this is by working with Language Representatives, who connect with their language communities, encourage the schools to complete the survey, participate in our annual conference, and keep community and school stakeholders up to date about new information and events. We have Language Representatives who lead, work in, or are connected to community-based schools teaching American Sign Language, Arabic, Armenian, Bulgarian, Czech/Slovak, Chinese, Danish, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese. This is not a complete list of languages taught. We want to include more. We also want to collaborate with leaders in Native American language programs (AAAS Recommendation 4, also featured in this issue). Please join us!

I am currently trying to find contact information for all of the community-based schools and programs in the U.S. teaching Japanese as a heritage language to include them in a circle of communication with the National Coalition of Heritage Language Schools. My message to the JHL schools that are not yet identified is, “Let us know where you are. We will reach you!”

Masako Douglas, Orange Coast Gakuen Japanese Language School

For nearly 70 years, Lithuanian heritage schools have been operating as a network. There are 40 of them working according to the regulations of the Lithuanian Education Council of the U.S. Programs. Textbooks have been created, continuous education courses for teachers organized, summer heritage camps established, partnerships with the Ministry of Education of Lithuania established, and 200 other Lithuanian schools across the world instituted. These schools also have a network of sponsors, like the Lithuanian Foundation and the Kazickas Family Foundation.

Neila Baumiliene, Director, Kazickas Family Foundation, New York, New York

Holding an Annual Conference

Every year, the Coalition holds a conference at American University in Washington, DC, where teachers, administrators, board members, and other stakeholders working in and with community-based schools come together, with other leaders and experts in the field of language education, to make connections and share information and resources. Information is available about our last conference, in October 2017, with the PowerPoints of the presentations made and a video of the keynote address by Dr. Guadalupe Valdes. Please let us know if you would like to be on our mailing list about next year’s conference, to be held Saturday, October 13, 2018.

Sharing Information and Resources

In collaboration with the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) at UCLA, we have a web site for the National Coalition of Community-Based Schools, where we post information and resources that are important to the work of community-based schools. Topics that we focus on include how to

  • Start a new program and form a nonprofit organization
  • Improve an existing program (strong curriculum and instruction, teacher training and retention, increased enrollment, engaging and effective instruction, and student and parent engagement)
  • Ensure that students in the program receive credit for their language proficiency through their public or private school, the Seal of Biliteracy, and other means
  • Engage effectively with parents of the students in the program
  • Reach out to and work together with the local language community
  • Address practical issues (taxes, human resources, etc.)

Perceptions of the value of heritage languages are all about how much parents value their roots and identities and choose to instill that in their children’s lives. The more families nurture that process, the higher the chances are that their children will believe that it is something they can relate to and develop a sense of belonging to. When parents are actively engaged in the programs, they are able to develop a sense of community that is critical for themselves, for their children, and for the heritage language school’s continuity.

Ana Lucia Lico, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Brazilian Association for Culture and Education (ABRACE)

Student retention is one of the issues that heritage language schools struggle with. Middle and high school students, juggling the demands of public schools and their numerous extracurricular activities, need strong motivation to stay involved. A critical form of motivation is still largely missing or rather difficult to achieve; the ability to receive high school credit for heritage language proficiency. This motivates many students to stay involved with their school throughout high school. We hope to promote conversations about this crucial aspect of collaboration between heritage schools and public schools.

Marta McCabe, Founder and President, Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina

Interacting on an Ongoing Basis

We are looking for the best ways to promote communication among programs. We are launching a Facebook page as an interactive platform for school and program practitioners to share experiences, ask questions, and discuss our next steps together.

A Call to Action

The 2017 report on America’s Languages makes a powerful statement:

There is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in history. … The Commission on Language Learning recommends a national strategy to improve access to as many languages as possible for people of every region, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background … to ensure that a useful level of proficiency is within every student’s reach. (p. viii)

Community-based heritage language schools can make critically important contributions to this effort. Let’s work together to ensure that the rich array of these schools is included in this national strategy and in our national language landscape.

To connect with us and become engaged as a Language Representative, complete or send out the survey, participate in our annual conference, or become involved in any other way, please write to We look forward to collaborating with you!


American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (2017). America’s languages: Investing in language education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Author.

Fishman, J. A. (1966). Language loyalty in the United States. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.

Fishman, J. A. (1985). The rise and fall of the ethnic revival. Berlin. Mouton de Gruyter.

Fishman, J. A. (2001). 300-plus years of heritage language education. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 81-108). Washington, DC and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics & Delta Systems.

Fishman, J. A., & Nahirny, V. C. (1966). The ethnic group school and mother tongue maintenance. In J.A. Fishman (Ed.), Language loyalty in the United States: The maintenance and perpetuation of non-English mother tongues by American ethnic and religious groups (pp. 92-126). The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.