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Review of  Constructing the Heritage Language Learner

Reviewer: Hsiang-Hua Chang
Book Title: Constructing the Heritage Language Learner
Book Author: Neriko Musha Doerr Kiri Lee
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 25.1420

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Heritage language (HL) education has a long history, but research on heritage language education is a relatively new field. It is rising as a ‘hot topic,’ and becoming a sub-discipline in foreign language education and applied linguistics. It is no surprise that many HL studies focus on the applied aspect, or language instruction and acquisition. For these studies, research subjects, or ‘heritage language learners (HLLs),’ are usually defined objectively as learners who acquired competency of a non-dominant language in their society mainly through interaction with foreign-born parents and other family members. However, as the authors of this volume point out, “the heritage language learner is often defined without critical discussion of what it means...(p. 7)” and a more theoretically sound definition is needed. In contrast to many other HL studies that treat the HLL as an agreed-upon category of individuals, ‘Constructing the Heritage Language Learner’ argues that it is a constructed notion whose meaning is contested and negotiated by researchers, school administrators, teachers, and the students themselves. The label ‘HLL’ does not objectively exist; rather, it is an identity on which individuals ponder and use to (re)define who they are by relating themselves to others, school programs, communities, and homelands.

Based on a longitudinal study with qualitative data from four years of fieldwork at Jackson Japanese Language School (JJLS), a weekend school in the northeastern United States (US), the goal of this study is to investigate two main issues: how one comes to be considered a HLL and what the effects of being considered a HLL are. It scrutinizes how the HLL is constructed -- through a process of contestation and negotiation -- which results in different behavior regarding learning attitudes and performance. The volume also offers practical suggestions for schools, especially concerning administrative changes and policymaking.

JJLS was an ideal site for this study because it has three kinds of programs: one supported by the Japanese government (hoshuko-bu, a weekend supplementary Japanese language school approved by the Japanese government teaching kokugo (‘national language’) with the same curriculum used in Japan and that has a Japanese government-sent principal), one that is independent (Jackson Course, keishogo (‘heritage language’) program), and one that is Japanese as a Foreign Language (JFL, not discussed in this study). The coexistence of these programs gives students and parents opportunities to ponder the subjectivities of each program. The case of Japanese HL education presented in this book clearly illustrates the constructing process of HLLs: although there are two programs at JJLS -- hoshuko-bu and Jackson Course -- that can be theoretically considered HL education, only the Jackson Course is construed by learners and parents as HL education.

The two authors, Lee, a linguist and an administrator at JJLS, and Doerr, a cultural anthropologist, both have children attending JJLS. Although not without constraints, their multiple roles provided them with various entry points, which were considerably advantageous when doing field work requiring a great deal of trust from research participants. Their involvement at JJLS contributed to obtaining a rich set of data.

This monograph consists of nine chapters, and nine appendices of research questionnaires, student profiles, and a glossary of Japanese terms. References and an index for terminology and proper names can be found at the end of the book.

The opening chapter, entitled ‘The heritage language learner?,’ introduces the main objectives of the book and provides a brief overview of the entire volume, including brief mention about research on HLL, weekend Japanese language schools in the US, kokugo vs. keishogo education, and the ‘heritage language effect’ (i.e., the effect of calling someone a HLL). In general, this volume argues that HLL is a social construct, whose meaning is constructed by researchers, administrators and students. The process involves competing regimes of difference, through which students’ subjectivities become intelligible to themselves and to others. These subjectivities guide their dreams about the future, create self-fulfilling prophecies, and steer the camaraderie they form with others. The book’s objective is approached by analyzing learners’ performative citations of various regimes of difference, such as foreign vs. heritage language learners, top- vs. lower-track students, native vs. heritage speakers, etc. Chapter 1 also introduces the three angles used to examine how HLLs are constructed: (1) by constructing them as a new object of investigation (Chapter 2), (2) through schooling and by governing and molding students (Chapters 4-5), and (3) by giving meaning to programs and students (Chapters 6-8).

Chapter 2, entitled ‘An emerging field of investigation: Construction of the heritage language learner as a new object of study,’ surveys existing research on HLLs and emphasizes constructing HLLs out of language learners. The authors point out that common definitions of HLLs fail in many ways. For instance, the self-esteem-based HLL approach concerns raising the self-esteem of minority language speakers in mainstream schools, and the regime of difference it relies on is English-monolingual American mainstream vs. HLLs of a minority language. However, at JJLS, many students who have family connection to Japan, and who are HLLs by definition, chose to attend the JFL program due to their lack of Japanese communication skills. Based on another approach, the linguistic proficiency definition of the HLL -- native speaker vs. HLL vs. foreign language learner -- it is also difficult to define what type of learners these students are. This definition is also questionable in terms of how to set the criteria and how to evaluate proficiency.

Instead of seeking another “researchers’ definition” of HLLs, the authors propose to focus on studying the ‘heritage language effect’ -- how a learner comes to be considered a HLL and what are the effects of being considered as such. They promote the importance of studying power relations and agency. In this new approach of investigation, power relations among researchers, school administrators, teachers, and HLLs need to be acknowledged and scrutinized. The last part of Chapter 2 illustrates the effects of research on HL education, including supporting reified notions of language, linguistic community, and language speakers (i.e., HLLs, native and non-native speakers).

Chapter 3, entitled ‘Ethnographic fieldwork at Jackson Japanese Language School,’ introduces JJLS in terms of its history, structure, and programs. It discusses how and why the Jackson Course was developed, how the authors’ subjectivities affected the fieldwork process, and how data were collected. Ethnographic fieldwork is valuable and is able to provide practical suggestion for educators. For instance, this research made school administrators, such as Lee, realize that the relationship between an individual and her HL is personal and cannot be judged only from linguistic proficiency standpoint. The research results confirmed that the decision to join the Jackson Course should come from students and parents. In addition to linguistic proficiency, other issues that matter to them when choosing a program were identified as: their sense of belonging, future plans, peer relations, scheduling, and the kinds of occasions in which the student used Japanese.

Chapter 4, ‘Betwixt and between Japanese and the heritage language learner of Japanese,’ outlines the process of constructing kokugo and keishogo students at the level of the institution and beyond. Research on HL education rarely discusses the gap between the policy of the homeland government and its local implementation in language schools. Yet, in the case of Japanese kokugo, the constructing process of HLLs has to be examined beyond local schools due to the Japanese government’s policies regarding financial support. HLLs were constructed in opposition to ‘Japanese’ students, who were assumed to have returned to Japan, thus deserving of Japan’s tax money. The reluctance of the Japanese government to cater to increasingly diverse student bodies in the US contradicts Japan’s policy to encourage local outreach and results in schools struggling to define Japanese vs. HL learners and to figure out how to serve them. The second half of the chapter examines the way JJLS negotiated balancing the Japanese government’s policies and the needs of the local community, which evolved to include both hoshuko education and locally rooted programs for the community.

Chapter 5, ‘Designing the heritage language learner: Modes of governmentality in the classroom,’ examines the design and implementation of the hoshuko-bu and the Jackson Course, with a focus on intended governmentality -- ‘the attempts to shape rationally human conduct’ -- based on administrators’ vision of specific programs and imagined target students. Hoshuko-bu assumes the student subjectivities as Japanese living in Japan or students living overseas but who will return to Japan, while the Jackson Course views students as having multiple subjectivities, one of which is Japanese. Obviously, as the authors point out, the design of hoshuko-bu ignores these students’ complex sense of belongings. This can be exemplified by one hoshuko-bu teacher, who stated she did not consider students’ different cultural backgrounds when leading discussions in class. In contrast, a Jackson Course teacher made a conscious effort to present various culturally connected viewpoints. The grading system is different in these two programs as well: hoshuko-bu gives quantitative grades of A, B, and C, while the Jackson Course provides qualitative reports with a description of students’ accomplishments. This chapter presents detailed descriptions and real cases of teacher and student behavior in classes. It illustrates how different modes of governmentality in Japanese and HL education construct students’ linguistic proficiency, behavior, and subjectivities.

Chapter 6, ‘Defining the heritage language learner,’ shows that HLLs are not passive objects, but rather active participants in deciding what a HLL is. Research results show that students’ and parents’ perceptions of the Jackson Course are consequential and influential in the operations of the Jackson Course. Cases discussed in this chapter highlight the importance of mentalities of government: i.e., different mentalities may regard the same activity as different practices of governmentality. Some students and parents interpreted modes of governmentality different from the administrator’s intent. Students and parents compare hoshuko-bu and the Jackson Course by wavering between top- vs. lower-track classes and kokugo vs. keishogo education rather than Japanese native speakers vs. HLLs. These perceptions influence students’ and parents’ decision to enroll in the Jackson Course, which they consider as being for dropouts from hoshuko-bu. However, the authors also present interesting cases about changes of perceptions. For example, a Jackson Course student changed from considering students in the Jackson Course as dropouts to thinking of them as students learning Japanese outside of kokugo education, and thus, redefined herself as a ‘Japanese speaker’ (HLL) rather than an American learning Japanese (FLL). This shows a shift in her perception, from a deficit (i.e., top- vs. lower-track) to a difference (i.e., native vs. heritage) model. The importance of these perceptions when analyzing the governmentality effect is obvious, yet it has received little attention because modes and effects of governmentality are usually determined by researchers, not by research participants’ perceptions.

In Chapter 7, ‘Shifting frames of reference,’ the authors address questions that concern not only researchers but also school administrators and parents: What makes students keep learning their HL? What contexts support students’ learning of HLs? Longitudinal research data invigorate this chapter’s examination of students’ various trajectories and changing frames of reference, as well as the factors that influenced them. For example, students’ motivation for learning Japanese changed from communication with relatives in Japan during preschool and early elementary school to promoting a sense of self -- being bilingual and Japanese among Americans -- in late elementary and middle school. However, the lack of recognition of Japanese language proficiency as educational capital in middle schools made some students leave JJLS. Language policies that make knowledge of HLs as educational capital in the mainstream educational system, such as the inclusion of Japanese as an Advanced Placement (AP) exam subject, are crucial to inspiring students to continue learning the language. In this sense, part of the construction of HLLs is achieved by bridging the gap between the Japanese proficiency students developed in JJLS and the mainstream American educational system. The authors argue that students who change their frame of reference of learning Japanese from Japan to the US are constructed anew as HLLs, in contrast to learners of Japanese as a FL.

Chapter 8, ‘Adjusting the Jackson course,’ describes how the program developed in response to parents’ perceptions, students’ needs, and the Japanese government’s position. JJLS established the Jackson Course with consideration of its students’ diverse level of Japanese proficiency, various interests and experiences in the US, bilingual proficiency in Japanese and English, and heritages other than Japanese. The analysis of the Jackson Course experience through observation, interviews, and program operation offers insights for the study of language education and practical suggestions for how language schools can cater to diverse student bodies. In the JJLS experience, this may involve textbook choices, course packet creation, re-organization of course structure, and information sessions about courses in order to modify the perception of students and parents toward these courses.

The concluding chapter, Chapter 9, ‘Implications and departure,’ discusses and summarizes what this study offers to the wider theoretical understanding of HL education, knowledge and power, and governmentality, while also providing practical suggestions for HL schools in six areas, e.g., educators should refrain from labeling students as HLLs or assigning HLs to a program, should inform parents and students about pedagogical approaches, etc.


‘Constructing the Heritage Language Learner’ is an important contribution to the emerging field of HL. This book offers a fresh perspective on HL education, which usually assumes the existence of HLLs. It devotes itself to the ethnographic investigation of individuals’ perceptions of what being a HLL means, how individuals (re)define themselves as HLLs, and how it affects daily interactions and school settings. This volume presents HL education from psychological, social, and political perspectives, which provides a new angle from which to examine HLLs and HL education. Doerr and Lee did this with clarity, while engaging their readers with interesting interviews and fieldwork. The authors’ longitudinal study obviously generated a great deal of data; however, only the representative cases of some students and parents are discussed in this volume. This decision makes the discussion focus solely on key data and does not distract readers with tangential stories.

This book relies on ethnographic fieldwork to illustrate the construction of HLLs and has both theoretical and practical contributions. For instance, the perception and subjectivities of the students and their parents toward the Jackson Course were complex and cannot be analyzed adequately by existing frameworks of HL education, which focus on the learner’s position in mainstream society or on language acquisition. Students’ and parents’ resistance to being interpellated as dropouts or keishogo learners (HLL) influenced the naming of the Jackson Course (without the label of HL). In the same vein, as the Jackson Course continued to develop, it had to respond not only to its student needs but also to perceptions of prospective students and parents.

Another application is that the relationship between an individual and his/her ‘heritage’ is personal and cannot be judged only from the ‘expert’ viewpoint of linguistic proficiency. Accordingly, Lee realized that some people choose a given program for reasons other than linguistic needs, such as the sense of who they are. This new perspective led to a change in the school’s operation, which made her reject a linguistic proficiency-centered approach to students’ placement.

Overall, I find the book refreshing and inspiring. It provides not only a new angle for examining HL education, but also inspires its readers to re-examine their understanding about it, and motivates them to further explore this young subfield of language research. It motivates me to practically reflect on my own teaching and how I mold my students in terms of their perceptions about the subject matter as well as themselves. Even though parents and educators will not find explicit course advice in this book, which is not within the scope of the study, this book does offer practical implications for them. It should certainly appeal to those interested in bilingualism and heritage and minority languages, especially linguistic sociologists and anthropologists, educators, researchers, and policymakers. I look forward to reading more articles generated from these qualitative data addressing developments in and changes to the JJLS’s curriculum and students, as well as case studies of other HL schools.
Hsiang-Hua Chang is Assistant Professor of Chinese in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Oakland University. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics and her research interests include first and second language acquisition, Chinese linguistics, and foreign and heritage language education.