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What is the Heritage Language Initiative?

Frequently Asked Questions about HLI

Q: What is HLI?
A: HLI stands for Heritage Language Initiative.

Q: What does that mean, exactly?
A: HLI seeks to address the needs of speakers of languages other than English in our communities and to build on the strengths that come from bilingualism. The heritage language is often the language spoken at home, other than English.

Q: Who runs the HLI?
A: HLI is run by Portland State University's Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

Q: Who is it for?
A: HLI is for those who wish to strengthen their basic skills in a heritage language, as well as those who want to succeed in American society but who are challenged by language difficulties.

Q: Why not just teach these people English?
A: Research shows that literacy in a person’s first language is a key to success in English. The HLI aims at those who need to be equipped with English language skills that assure achievement. But heritage language is much more than this. Heritage languages enrich the lives of those who speak them, for example, by enabling second- and third-generation speakers to communicate with their elders. This builds cohesion in ethnic communities, which is a key to preventing gang-related activities from taking hold.

Q: Who are we talking about, exactly? Can you give an example of people who need HLI?
A: There are a number of populations whose language limitations stand in the way of their success. They include:

a. Illiterate or semiliterate speakers of other languages. Example: the Spanish-speaking (primarily Mexican) immigrant population. Because literacy in the first language is a bridge to literacy in English, there is a critical need to build Spanish literacy in the immigrant community. This needs to be tied to intensive training in English.

b. Bilingual speakers of English and some other language who need additional training in their heritage language in order to make it useful in their lives. Example: children of immigrants who speak but do not read Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, and a host of other languages that are represented in our community. Because these individuals have no formal training in their heritage language, they do not fit smoothly into the traditional academic language curriculum. For adult (college-level) education, a heritage curriculum is now recognized as best meeting the needs of such individuals. For K-12 learners, other kinds of intervention are rapidly being developed.

Q: What are the advantages of HLI?
A: Bilingualism has practical advantages in addition to contributing to our society’s cultural richness and resources. Bilingual skills are valued in the work place.

Q: What is the end benefit to being bilingual?
A: With the right kind of instruction, heritage speakers are considered most likely to succeed in developing a command of a foreign language at a level essential for professional transactions, international trade, and national security.

Q: Why base the HLI at a university?
A: University students are currently studying how to help linguistically-challenged members of the community. Heritage language learners provide hands-on experience for language, linguistics and education majors at the university. The opportunities for community-based (in-service) learning are enormous for students, both undergraduate and graduate.

Q: Don't you have to be super-smart to speak more than one language?
A: No. Children in a bilingual environment readily acquire bilingual skills in a natural setting. Often, however, they are not aware of how to further develop their linguistic skills. Research shows that bilingualism is closely correlated with high performance on standardized tests such as IQ tests and college entrance exams. So, development of language skills results in improved performance in many walks of life.

Q: What does the community get out of the HLI program?
A: The need for speakers of many languages is already critical in the state’s judicial system and in the health-care industry. An additional benefit of heritage language programs is that they contribute to making the university transparent to communities who might otherwise be fearful or mistrusting. Even if people who struggle with language don't go to college themselves, their children will find it easier to aspire to higher education if parents have had positive learning experiences here.

Q: Why PSU? Aren’t other universities in the state or the area doing this already?
A: PSU's motto, Let knowledge serve the city, reflects a longstanding commitment to community and regional welfare. Over half of the state’s heritage language speakers live within commuting distance of the PSU campus. This is important in gauging how many people would be served by on-campus programs as well as in determining how faculty and students might go off campus to deliver language training in the communities where it is most needed.

PSU's Department of World Languages and Literatures has a history of offering more languages than any other institution in the state. The Department has the necessary expertise to succeed in this innovative program.

The other heritage language program closest to Portland is in southern California. There is a critical need to address the needs of heritage language speakers who have much to contribute to our state and our region.