Innovating Heritage Language Teaching

Kim Potowski

Kim Potowski. Photo by Micki Leventhal

“I remember at age 14, sitting with my grandma at the kitchen table and asking why I couldn’t speak Lithuanian,” said Kim Potowski, associate professor and director of the Spanish Heritage Language Program in the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies. “She told me that in Brooklyn in the 1950s you just did not do that. The objective was to assimilate—part of that meant giving up your language of origin. Although their parents and some of their older siblings were immigrants, and Lithuanian was spoken at home, my grandparents were English-dominant. They were heritage speakers. With each subsequent generation we lost more of the language; my father and uncles knew like three words and I know none. I remember a keen interest in all this as a child and feeling robbed of something important. My family was mono-lingual, mono-cultural, mono-everything.”

Today, attitudes have changed and families generally hope to preserve fluency in their heritage language, but “just because you want it, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” said Potowski. “With few exceptions, languages are not being transmitted inter-generationally. We have an extraordinarily monolinguistic culture. Eighty percent of families in this country only speak English in the home and many people very openly show their disdain for non-English languages.”

Potowski discovered her passion for heritage language education while pursuing her PhD in Spanish linguistics at UIUC. “I knew that I was not interested in adult second-language acquisition—the dominant research area in the department at that time.”

She had recently conducted her first published study looking at the foreign-language classroom experiences of heritage-speaking Latino students. “It was abysmal. Culturally and linguistically it was very negative for them. It was worse than useless; it was actually damaging.” When she learned about immersion education—programs in which four-year-old children are schooled in and through a second language—“the lights went on, the angels sang. I knew what I really wanted to study.”

She then discovered a particular kind of immersion education called two-way immersion, in which half of the children are bilingual Latinos and half are monolingual English speakers from a mix of backgrounds. “The children learn from each other and the teacher is not the sole source of Spanish input. Unlike what happens in most schools, the Latino children’s Spanish is highly valued.”

Potowski moved to Chicago in 1999 to do her dissertation research at the Inter-American Magnet School, a Chicago Public School with the second-oldest dual language program in the United States. She returned to the school three years later to conduct a follow-up study and her 2007 book, “Language and Identity in a Dual Immersion School,” documents her findings.

Potowski was also a teaching assistant in UIC’s Spanish department at the time. “I realized our department had a separate track for heritage speakers of Spanish; I was invited to teach in this program. It was founded 25 years ago, so I think we were one of the first heritage programs. Today we are one of the largest.”

Now a nationally-recognized authority, Potowski regularly consults with universities and colleges interested in establishing heritage language programs. “I am preaching the gospel,” she said. “How you create it, why you create it, what are the dos and don’ts once you create it. What your program looks like should depend a lot on local demographics.

“At UIC we serve about 150 students per semester in our heritage program. Eighty percent of them are children of immigrants; they grew up with parents who did not speak much English, so their Spanish is very strong. However, they were educated entirely in English and that is their dominant language for all formal contexts. So, at UIC with this student profile, we focus on writing—developing a thesis, building an argument—similar skill sets that are developed in any language arts curriculum, but in Spanish. However, curriculum needs to be very population-sensitive. Some of my colleagues in New Mexico are working with students who are fifth-generation heritage speakers and are only receptively bilingual. They would not place into the UIC program because they have different needs. This is not one-size-fits-all.”

Woman and 2 girls in costume.

Potowski and two young friends celebrate Día de los Muertos 2011. Photo courtesy of Potowski

During the 2011-12 academic year, Potowski secured a Fulbright research and teaching grant to study Spanish language arts curriculum at Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca, Mexico. Her original plan was to use her findings to improve heritage curriculum in U.S. high schools and colleges. Shortly after getting situated in Oaxaca, however, Potowski was introduced to a family whose transnational experience expanded her understanding of language heritages and created a major shift in her Fulbright project.

Fourteen-year-old Guillermo and his 11-year-old sister Constanza were typical Spanish heritage speakers: they were raised in Minneapolis with fluency in spoken Spanish but needed development in academic and literacy skills. When their mother returned with them to Oaxaca, the children experienced things in the schools that were very similar to experiences of non-English-speaking immigrants to the U.S. in the 1960s.

“I was really intrigued by this situation. These kids who are heritage Spanish speakers in the U.S., if they return to Mexico before the age of 12, they become heritage English speakers. They actually run the risk of losing their English proficiency.”

The questions of language retention, cultural identity and a host of other issues around the transnational experience became compelling enough that Potowski contacted the Fulbright Foundation and requested a change in her project. She was given the green light from the commission and her local department chair was supportive, suggesting a spring-term class on transnational migration and educational experiences.

From January forward, she and her Oaxaca university students gathered 35 interviews with young people of varying ages who had lived in the U.S. for at least nine years and had recently returned to Oaxaca. “I have not begun a thorough analysis yet, but I’m starting to identify certain themes. The interviews were very rich.” With support from an Institute for the Humanities grant, Potowski is spending December 2012 back in Oaxaca collecting more interviews.

Potowski emphasized that the experiences she is researching in Mexico have global applications. “This is not just about Spanish or U.S./Mexico transnationalism, although that is my passion and my research focus. It is all over the world: Arabic speakers in France, various African-language speakers in Spain. There is a huge Ecuadorian population in Genoa, Italy—they invited me to help them develop a heritage program for the Ecuadorian youth. There is also an entire population among missionary children who become what some are calling third-culture kids.”

Mexican street vendor

Oaxaca street vendor. Photo by Kim Potowski

Ultimately, Potowski will compile her findings into a scholarly work. “An academic analysis with a qualitative piece looking at the narratives and a quantitative piece looking at their English and their Spanish fluencies,” she said. “But there’s another book that’s going to happen that I’m even more excited about. It will be an illustrated story for approximately the fifth-grade level and will address the transnational experience from the viewpoint of U.S.-raised Latino children who have emigrated to Mexico. It’s tentatively titled los hermanos que vinieron del norte [The Siblings Who Came from the North]. The children confront stereotypes, assumptions, even bullying by their new Mexican classmates, until one student stands up for them because she has a cousin in California. I plan to get a Mexican illustrator and I hope the Mexican Federal Education Office will sponsor printing and distribution throughout Mexico.”

Potowski is currently working on several other book projects: One—under contract with Oxford University Press—is a collaboration with Lourdes Torres of DePaul University that looks at the linguistic and cultural crossroads of the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities in Chicago. Another work—contracted with John Benjamins Press—focuses on the under-researched subject of Mexi-Ricans—children with one Mexican and one Puerto Rican parent. “What does the language and cultural identity of mixed-Latino heritage look like? I think our research will contribute a lot to the discourse,” she said. There is a heritage-language methods book under contract with McGraw Hill and—with Anna María Escobar from UIUC—she is also completing the first textbook in Spanish about Spanish in the United States.

Tirelessly working toward improving the experience for her students, Potowski is developing a study abroad program for heritage speakers at the 100-level. “There is really no coursework out there for them, so I am putting a program together with the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. Students will stay with local families during a four-week session in which they will take a Spanish language intensive and a course in Oaxacan culture that will include history and indigenous arts. I’m designing it for four weeks because, generally, the students who fit the profile for this program cannot afford to go away for eight weeks over the summer, not only because of the cost of the trip, but because of income lost from not being in Chicago to work.”

Not content to let the financial aspect take care of itself, Potowski last year established the UIC Oaxaca Study Abroad Fund to provide scholarship assistance for the undergraduates interested in the immersion experience. All of the UIC royalties from her textbook, Conversaciones escritas, are going into the scholarship fund. To support this effort, consider a gift to fund number 341041.