Saturday, December 16, 2006

Heritage speakers

Tower of Babel

Vox Populi

An occasional Jurisdynamics series on language and linguistic diversity

Among the many intellectual paramours I've acquired over the course of my life, none stirs my passion more consistently or more intensely than the science of human language: how it is acquired, how it is structured, how the quest to unlock the secrets of syntax sheds light on the limits and possibilities of human thought. One skill is at once most essential to the practice of law and least effectively taught in law schools: the interpretation of codified legal texts. I've gotten plenty of professional mileage from exploring the interaction of law with public-sector economics, the life sciences, natural disasters, and even a few aspects of mathematics, but every legal issue of consequence reduces eventually to some exercise in interpretation informed by my respect for rhetoric and love of linguistics.

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the public figure I remember most vividly from my childhood and a master of multiple Southern dialects
I am one day shy of my 40th birthday and only a few dozen hours removed from what has been the defining moment of my career. A dear friend has told me "to appreciate how much [I've] been through and what [I've] achieved." As a strictly intellectual matter, perhaps nothing has had a greater impact on me than a bit of personal history that appears in retrospect to have been mostly accidental: being deposited as a native speaker of Taiwanese just short of the age of six in the culturally contested American South. My entire childhood, from that point onward, consisted of bridging the gap between the language of my household and, eventually, at least three variations on the theme of American English: Black English Vernacular (BEV), the language of Southern whites, and the language of national television. Dialects in America hinge on subtle differences in phonology, morphology, syntax, prosody, and rhetoric. No gap is greater than the one that separates BEV from every other variant of American English. Encountering BEV first, and then being sent to speech therapy by the well-intentioned but confused teachers in my predominantly white elementary school, completed my youthful exposure to a wide range of speech communities and the sometimes awkward social interactions between them.

This is a long way of placing myself in a burgeoning class of Americans: heritage speakers of non-English languages. Within higher education, we heritage speakers pose a special pedagogical challenge:
Heritage speakers[H]eritage language learners [are] students with either some basic level of proficiency or a cultural or familial tie to a language . . . . Many American colleges now have enough heritage speakers not only of Spanish but of languages like Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Hindi -- languages that are increasingly important educationally -- that colleges are considering how best to teach heritage and non-heritage students. . . .

[P]roviding [these students] with a "systemic understanding" [of heritage languages] isn’t easy. Many heritage speakers who are apparently fluent have never studied their languages in an academic sense and have shortfalls in their knowledge. At the same time, educating them separately can be controversial -- as to some it feels like ethnic segregation.
Colleges such as Portland State University have developed extensive programs for training heritage speakers. Because law students rarely if ever acquire or sharpen foreign language skills during law school -- not only a serious oversight in the age of globalization, but also one worthy of discussion at MoneyLaw and Law School Innovation -- the question arises: What exactly does the presence of heritage speakers portend for legal education?

In attempting an answer, I rely on nothing besides instinct and (perhaps to my detriment) extrapolations from my own experience. I do believe, though, that law students and especially law professors who are heritage speakers tend, almost imperceptibly, to be more intellectually supple, perhaps more creative, in their approach to law and legal problem-solving. The effect becomes more pronounced whenever the questions of law at hand hinge on the interpretation of a formal legal text. Casual experience with complex verb tenses, grammatical gender, and measure words exposes even the feeblest of heritage speakers to modes of thought not available to their strictly monolingual counterparts. One of this forum's most persistent hecklers might again accuse me yet again of allowing sympathy with immigrants to shade my thinking. But unless Persistent Heckler has some non-English linguistic legacy in his or her head, my point is that P. Heckler can't quite duplicate my thinking.

Then again, I am prepared to confess that everything I have written here may be utterly devoid of intellectual validity, insofar as it might simply represent nostalgia for a brief moment in time, not too long ago, when Alex Johnson was dean at Minnesota and Guy Charles, Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, and I could laugh at our common experiences and worldviews as three men born on tropical islands where English is not widely spoken, but pigs are enthusiastically roasted and eaten.


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