On heritage Czech

by panglott

Last year my son started kindergarten (he is just finishing now), so it has been about a year and a half since we were shopping for schools and considering his language education. At the time, I advocated a dual-language-immersion (Spanish/English) elementary school (which has very impressive) while my wife advocated a prestigious self-directed learning school (Louisville has a hybrid school choice/lottery system rather than strictly neighborhood schools), and he ended up getting admission to the latter. That put off his language education for a time, but I started researching his school’s programs a few weeks ago after happening across the pop-ling book The Bilingual Edge while browsing Amazon. So I looked into what his school offers, and it was much worse than I feared: Two years of French or Spanish in grades 9-12.

Having gotten through high school and college with a poor, passive understanding of French, I cannot help but have a jaundiced and perhaps unfair view of foreign language instruction in American secondary education. But I am still skeptical that two years of high-school instruction are going to teach students much language effectively.

Today most advocates of language instruction cite the economic and social value of learning a prestigious national language. This can be a problem for speakers of less-prestigious languages, but conventional classroom instruction is still insufficient.

Real multilingualism is extraordinarily precious. I know what it means to actually speak a language, rather than simply having studied it in school. I studied French in school, and can still read some, although I’ve never been able to actually speak it much. I lived for a year and a half in Japan and can speak Japanese conversationally, although my Japanese is pretty fossilized these days. I love languages, and actually speaking an oral language is important to me. And learning an oral language together, we have so many options: Latin! Icelandic! Indonesian! Hah.

Thinking about this over a few days, the options narrowed: my wife studied German, but German doesn’t interest me much. Japanese is very difficult to become literate in. I’ve been working on getting my French more up to speed. Spanish is the “useful” language all the people are studying these days. But Czech was another candidate.

Czech is a heritage language in my family; my maternal great-grandfather immigrated to Kansas from Czechoslovakia a century ago. My grandfather’s first language was Czech, but he quickly shifted to English; thus, I was raised as an English monolingual by English monolinguals. Yet we had some awareness of Czech linguistic heritage, such as the original pronunciation of the family name Dvořák and a few greetings. We went to Czech cultural festivals in Oklahoma, such as the Yukon Oklahoma Czech Festival and the Prague Kolache Festival. My first trip abroad was to Olomouc in the the Czech Republic as part of a Sister Cities exchange, and both of my sisters did this, too. If my sisters are on board, we can create a common field of use, establish functional oral use of the language. At the least, we can increase the kids’ heritage-language exposure, which is not a bad thing.

A good part of my graduate work, also, was on heritage language recovery and revival. I read plenty of the eminent Yiddishist and sociolinguist Joshua Fishman, such as Reversing Language Shift and Can threatened languages be saved?, and Leanne Hinton. Mostly this was about the revival of indigenous languages in the aftermath of colonialism, like the revival of Ainu in Japan or the amazing things Native American language revivalists are doing. But much of this applies to immigrant heritage languages as well.

Language learning and acquisition is about motivation, identity, and use. You have to be highly motivated to speak and use the language, find places to speak it constantly, claim an identity as the kind of person who speaks the language. Czech doesn’t have the resources of Spanish or French, but the one doesn’t preclude the other. The more I thought about it, the more enthusiastic I got about Czech.

So I spoke with one sister on Derby Day, May 2. She wants to teach her daughter a language, also Czech, French, or Spanish, and is fine with Czech. So I’m planning on spending May preparing and try to begin interacting in the target in June. Hopefully we can scale up to more immersive interaction over a period of months or years.