(1/9/13: This story was originally posted on the Medill Reports website on 12/6/2012. After it was published, Stan Lau brought a mistake to my attention. Below is the corrected version; “him and his brother” has been amended to say “him and his siblings.” Apologies for the error and thank you to Stan for bringing it to my attention! An incomplete paragraph was also removed. The original posting can be found here.)
When 11-year-old Omar and his younger sister Ban came to the U.S. from their native Iraq, they had no problems picking up the language – and customs – of their adopted country.
“I’m not Iraqi,” Omar will say in his perfectly un-accented English. “I’m Muslim, but I’m not Iraqi.”
Although they speak Arabic at home with their family, the two first-generation Americans risked losing their mother tongue. For almost a year now, their father has been taking them to Arabic classes at the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society in Rogers Park, where he, Ban and other young Iraqis – some born in the U.S., many not – learn the alif baa taas of their native language. Every Saturday morning, Omar joins his fellow students singing, in perfect Arabic, the Iraqi national anthem,“Mawtani.”
These students are part of a growing number of heritage language learners in the country, people who, unlike traditional language learners, have a cultural connection to the language they are studying, said Joy Peyton, a senior fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.
Heritage language learners often seek formal classes to learn reading, writing and grammar, but typically already speak the language at home with their families.
“They often have knowledge and communication skills that others don’t have,” Peyton said.
Approximately 36 percent of Chicagoans speak a language other than English in the home, and the number has been increasing slightly since 2009, according to the American Community Survey.
Since the first Conference on Heritage Languages in 1999, linguistics experts have been studying the educational needs and unique job opportunities of heritage language learners.
Because they already have a strong background in the language and the ethnic community, many heritage language students have an advantage in the job market, particularly in careers where language skills are needed, such as positions with the Department of Defense and the National Security Languages Initiative, Peyton said.
Chicago is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, with nearly 22 percent of the population foreign-born, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. The benefits of studying a heritage language go far deeper than just a career boost; by retaining their native languages, young first-, second- and third-generation Chicagoans like Omar are reinforcing a link to their homelands that would otherwise be lost in the shuffle of acculturation and Americanization.
Peyton said that this desire to uphold cultural traditions motivates many parents to enroll their children in a heritage language program.
“They want their children to maintain the language, and to develop their knowledge about the culture and their skills in it,” she said.
“People are unified around their native culture,” she said. “And preserving those cultural components and passing them to their children often has a language component of that.”
Culture is a key emphasis in Dunia Al Bayati’s Arabic classes at the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society. She has been teaching Arabic with the organization since coming to the U.S. from Iraq as a refugee in 2010, and provides a linguistic thread to a country many of her students knew just briefly, if at all.
She teaches them about important holidays, like Eid al-Adha, and talks to them about what is happening in Iraq.
It’s important for her students to “know the culture of Muslims and to know what happened to their country,” she said.
Anass Al Bayati, director of program administration at the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, says the organization began offering an Arabic class to “build a generation who are bilingual.”
Iraqi refugees are some of the most recent arrivals to Chicago; since they began settling in the city in 2003, their population has grown to around 3,000, according to the organization. It is a unified community, with pockets in Albany Park, West Rogers Park and Edgewater. The near impossibility of many of them returning to Iraq underpins the need to stay connected to each other and their former home, through language and cultural traditions.
“I believe it’s very important,” Al Bayati said. “It’s not about teaching the Arabic or teaching the alphabet letters, it’s about communication between each other.”
Al Bayati came to the U.S. with his family in 2010, and he says it can be a challenge to make sure his two children speak Arabic. He enforces an Arabic-only policy at home. His seven-year-old daughter also attends the organization’s Arabic class, at his insistence.
“My daughter, she believes that we are the four people all over the world who speak Arabic,” Al Bayati said. “She said, ‘Nobody speaks this language, Dad. Why are we speaking it?’ She’s still young, so I try to let her know that there are many people who speak Arabic and it’s a good language.”
The Center for Applied Linguistics’ Peyton said community-based organizations like the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society are leading the way in heritage language education. Though traditional K-12 schools have begun offering a wider array of language courses, such as Spanish for Spanish speakers and Mandarin Chinese, she said ethnic community organizations are instrumental in “developing the language proficiency of our country,” she said.
The Chinese American Service League serves the community in and around the distinct neighborhood, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. The organization offers three levels of Mandarin for Chinese Americans, but the class also attracts children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Stan Lau of the Northwest Side is ethnically Cantonese, but after his parents, Chinese immigrants themselves, moved him and his siblings away from Chinatown years ago, he said he slowly forgot how to speak Cantonese. He brings his seven-year-old daughter Annabella to Mandarin classes and said he hopes one day he can take her to China to see where her grandparents grew up.
“I’m first-generation born here in the U.S., and I want my daughter to continue to have an understanding of her heritage,” he said. “Even though my wife is not Chinese, I want her to understand where she comes from, and understand where her grandparents come from, so part of it is language.”
Peggy Luu has coordinated dance and language classes for the organization for ten years, and said she has seen an increase in the number of families seeking Mandarin classes for younger Chinese Americans. Since she joined the organization, the number of classes has gone from one to three, and the demand continues to grow.
Nikki Sriver is ethnically Chinese, but having grown up in Thailand she does not speak Mandarin. She and her husband, who is not Chinese, enrolled their seven-year-old daughter Kalaya in dance class at the Chinese American Service League when she was just three years old; two years later, she began Mandarin lessons, and so did Nikki.
She will sometimes sit in the back of the class with her daughter, picking up characters here and there so she can help Kalaya with her homework later.
After taking a trip to Shanghai in August, Sriver said she wants to take Kalaya back to look for family she has lost touch with.
“My dad came from China,” she said, “so in the future, we want to go in China and say, ‘See, this is your grandfather here, your family.’ ”
Peyton said the issue of identity is key among heritage language learners and their families. Some first- and second-generation Americans may wish to embrace their ethnic heritage, like Kalaya, while some, like Omar, seek to distance themselves from it in favor of a more Americanized culture.
“One really chooses what their identity is,” Peyton said. “We all choose our connections.”