Heritage language program at the University of California, San Diego: Developments & Challenges

Author: Kimloan Hill

Heritage Languages Programs in the UC System As is the trend, American universities offer courses in the following European (romance) languages – German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek; and many well-known universities also offer Chinese and Japanese. Very few universities offer less commonly taught languages such as Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian. Even fewer offer Khmer, Hmong, Arabic and Farsi. With economic globalization, the expanding migration of people around world, and the evolving nature of world politics, however, more universities have offered courses in less commonly taught languages. Among this group, Vietnamese has been gaining in importance in American universities since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, partly due to the fact that the Vietnamese population in the United States is the second largest in the world after Vietnam; and partly because Vietnam is gaining world attention regarding its steady economic growth and increasing stature in Southeast Asia.

The majority of universities in the University of California (UC) systems offer not only courses in European languages but also in less commonly taught languages. Five out of seven campuses in the UC system offer courses in the Vietnamese language – UC Berkeley (UCB), UC Los Angeles (UCLA), UC San Diego (UCSD), UC Irvine (UCI), and UC Riverside (UCR). Of these five universities, UCLA, along with UCB, UCI, and UCR, offers courses in the Vietnamese language as a foreign language; only UCLA offers an introductory course in Heritage Vietnamese every quarter. UCSD is the only university in the UC system that offers “Vietnamese for Vietnamese speakers”, or Vietnamese as a Heritage Language, at all three levels: introductory/beginning, intermediate, and advanced three times a year (in the Fall, Winter, and Spring quarters). It is a three-year program that students can take, in addition to one course in Humanities, to qualify for a minor degree in Vietnamese Studies.

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Language Programs at UCSD

UCSD has four language programs housed in three different departments: Literature, History, and Linguistics, and the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IRPS). The Literature Department offers courses in beginning Greek, Korean, Latin, and Russian; it also offers Intermediate and Advanced courses in French, German, Italian and Spanish. The History Department has its own Chinese and Japanese language program. IRPS did offer courses in professional/advanced Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as Korean, Indonesian, and Vietnamese; but in the fall quarter of 2003 Korean migrated to the Department of Literature, and Vietnamese and Portuguese migrated to the Department of Linguistics.

The Department of Linguistics offers not only courses in the field of linguistics, but also offers courses on the European languages listed above as well as Esperanto, Portuguese, and American Sign Language. All of these languages are combined to form the Linguistic Language Program (LLP). Since 2001, the department has offered courses on less commonly taught languages: Armenian (2001); Filipino and Arabic (2002), Vietnamese (2003), and Arabic, Persian and Korean (2004); and Hindi (2012). The courses on less commonly taught languages form the Heritage Languages Program (HLP). In the HLP, except for Vietnamese, which originated in the IRPS in mid -1990s and migrated to the Department of Linguistics in 2003, other languages have been newly introduced since 2001. In other words, the Vietnamese Heritage Language Program (VHLP) is the oldest program among the less commonly taught languages at UCSD and is the only program in the HLP that offers courses at all three levels – beginning, intermediate, and advanced – every quarter.

Brief History of the Development of Vietnamese Heritage Language Program (VHLP) at UCSD

The Vietnamese language program was initially founded by the IRPS in the mid - 1990s, aiming to offer professional Vietnamese to graduate students who specialized in Southeast Asia. However, IRPS has never been able to attract enough students into its Southeast Asian Studies program in order for it to take deep roots. Therefore, to save money, in the spring of 2003 the Dean of IRPS decided to eliminate all Southeast Asian languages along with Portuguese and Korean, two other weak language programs. As a result, Korean migrated to the Department of Literature and Portuguese and Vietnamese migrated to the Department of Linguistics. Portuguese was later incorporated into the LLP and Vietnamese was combined with Armenia, Arabic, and Filipino to form the HLP. Interestingly, before it was eliminated from IRPS, Vietnamese was already a strong language program: its classes (at all three levels) always reached their maximum and 95% of its students were Vietnamese Americans. These students were mostly undergraduates, majoring in sciences. There were some graduate students from professional/ graduate schools on campus but the number was not large enough to keep the program at IRPS. Today Vietnamese continues to be the strongest language program in the HLP; and most of the time the number of students enrolled in Vietnamese courses reaches their maximum capacity.

Although the Vietnamese language program has been the strongest language program throughout its history, in its early years it faced many obstacles that threatened its survival; perhaps because UCSD does not have a Southeast Asian Studies Department like UCLA or UC Berkeley to house Vietnamese. In the first four years of my tenure at the IRPS, students and teachers struggled to survive from year to year. Students worried that the courses they took would not exist in the following academic year. When IRPS decided to cut Vietnamese from its language program, the Department of Linguistics offered to house the program so that UCSD could continue to offer Vietnamese to its students. This decision was based also on the fact that the number of undergraduate students enrolled in the program had been high: between 45 and 75 students each quarter.

When the Vietnamese program migrated to the Department of Linguistics, the number of students increased to its maximum of 35 per course per quarter; but again it faced a budget crisis: until the languages in the HLP program could prove that the demand for these languages were constant for three consecutive years, the Department of Linguistics had to assume the burden of sustaining it financially; it meant the Department had to use its own funds to pay for expenses incurred by the HLP, including the salaries of its lecturers. A campaign to raise money to fund the HLP was launched by students in the HLP, by different students’ organizations, and by different ethnic organizations on campus; even faculty members in a number of departments whose students wanted to take languages in the HLP to satisfy their language requirement got involved in the campaign to keep the HLP alive. Graduate and undergraduate students of Vietnamese descent and the Vietnamese Students Association launched the fund-raising campaign, not only in UCSD, but also in Vietnamese communities in San Diego and in Orange County, more than 100 miles away. They even appealed for help on local Vietnamese radio and television networks to “save the Vietnamese language program at UCSD.” Thanks to those efforts, the HLP, especially the Vietnamese language program, continues to prosper today.

Challenges in Teaching Vietnamese to Heritage Learners:

A—Changes in Student Demography

When IRPS housed the Vietnamese language program, it opened the floodgate to an influx of Vietnamese Americans who wanted to take the Vietnamese language courses to satisfy the language requirement in undergraduate programs. Most of them were from Vietnam and had spent some years in the elementary, or even higher, education system in Vietnam. They were proficient enough to listen to lectures and take notes in Vietnamese. Some were also well-versed in Vietnamese culture and civilization.

Since the Department of Linguistics first housed the Vietnamese language program in 2003, there has been a great shift in the pattern of student demography. Today there are three distinctive groups: (a) the students in the beginning level who were born in the U.S. They are much younger than the previous generations who took lessons at the same level, and are much less proficient in Vietnamese. Some have received instructions from Vietnamese language schools in community schools, churches and temples, or from leaders in Boy/Girl Scout Troupes; (b) the second group that forms the intermediate level have also received instruction in Vietnamese from Vietnamese community schools, churches, temples, boy/girl scout troupes, as well as parents at home. They can carry on a conversation in Vietnamese regarding daily life relating to personal activities, family, and travel; (c) students in the advanced level are recent immigrants from Vietnam, they had at least 6th grade education before migrating to the U.S. and have a well-rounded knowledge of Vietnamese culture.

From the differences in students’ proficiency in different times and in different groups, the challenges have been adjusting teaching goals and pedagogy, as well as finding appropriate learning materials, to meet the needs and demands of new student generations. Vietnamese language textbooks that target students who learn Vietnamese as a foreign/second language do not meet their needs and demands.

B—Challenge in Choosing/Finding Appropriate Learning/Teaching Materials:

A teacher must know what s/he wants to teach (goal) before s/he can design a course and find appropriate teaching materials. A teacher is also someone who provides services to students where s/he teaches; therefore, s/he must know students’ needs and demands in order to provide them with appropriate services. This process can be accomplished through 4 steps: giving a placement test, using language-proficiency guidelines to create a teaching plan, choosing teaching materials, and designing the course. The placement test is an instrument to learn a student’s personal and academic background, including his/her language background: if s/he speaks Vietnamese at home, learns Vietnamese outside the home and for how long, why s/he wants to learn Vietnamese, etc.... Proficiency guidelines are useful in determining the floor of a students’ ability, which is the starting point for the teaching plan, and in setting the goal for the course. In other words, proficiency guidelines help a teacher design a road map for the course. The Department of Linguistics at UCSD chooses the proficiency guidelines by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) as the tool to determine students’ ability and structure courses for all languages in its department. In the next two steps, choosing appropriate teaching materials for heritage language courses is the most difficult one because textbooks for non-native learners of the target language are notappropriate for heritage learners who, at the least, can understand the target language even if they cannot speak it well, pronounce its tones correctly and differentiate the nuances of culture embedded in the language, whereas it may takes years for a non-native learner to acquire those skills. Heritage learners want to acquire information regarding culture and social issues immediately; therefore, finding materials that attract their interest in learning is the most difficult. Moreover, teaching materials are the foundation on which a teacher builds the course (syllabus), and develops lessons and classroom activities. Currently, there are no meaningful and appropriate textbooks on the market for heritage learners.

Current VHLP Courses at UCSD

To be qualified as a heritage learner at UCSD, a student must have grown up in a family where Vietnamese is spoken as the first language and must at least understand the language to some degree and be able to make statements or answer questions using a limited vocabulary or simple phrases, about daily life, and use basic courteous words or phrases. On the other hand, if someone whose parents are Vietnamese has no ability to understand Vietnamese; s/he is not qualified to take part in the VHLP.

The aims of undergraduate students in taking courses in VHLP vary from meeting language requirements to being able to carry on a simple conversation with their grandmothers and making their parents happy, to learning about their heritage and travelling in Vietnam. The utmost concern among graduate students is to achieve university-level academic reading proficiency to do their research, and to apply for grants, or work.

In the survey that is a part of the placement test, students often report that their listening ability is better than their writing and speaking and express little confidence in their ability to write, even when they are placed at intermediate or advanced level. Students who were placed at beginning level often express concerns about their ability to read and comprehend texts. In reality, they can sound out the words in texts and guess the meaning since they have heard those words, phrases, or sentences before in their homes and in contacts with relatives. The common problems with heritage learners are: they seldom use a dictionary or transfer reading and writing strategies they know in English, like reading aloud or sounding out words, getting meaning from context, finding main ideas, and scanning and skimming.

Overall, the pedagogical implications are: a) since most of the students who enroll in the VHLP do not have confidence in their ability to speak, read, and write the best approach is to teach them reading and writing strategies in both English and Vietnamese; b) since there are some students who intentionally assess their abilities lower than they actual are to get into a lower level class in order to get an easy A. , the Department of Linguistics atUCSD requires students who take the placement test, to sign a statement of academic integrity which, in effect, says that if during the course of the quarter if the instructor figures out that they had lied in their placement test, they would have to move to the next higher level and/or be removed from the class.


a)—The introductory/beginning level:

The goals of this level are to provide students with instructions how to write as they speak and opportunities to improve their speaking performance in routine daily life situations: in family settings, in school, in social events, and also survival skills while travelling. Topics are related to family life, life on campus, travel, health needs, and social events. The number of students enrolled in this class has always reached its maximum every quarter.

To be accepted in this course a student must be able to maintain a very simple face-to- face conversation on familiar topics, have functional but limited proficiency, and be able to ask for help and for clarification of native speech in a face-to-face interaction. About 85% of students in the beginning level of the VHLP fit this requirement; 15% are less proficient. Most of them can speak short sentences, link discreet words or sentences to form a paragraph, observe minimal courtesy requirements, and answer questions relating to immediate survival needs such as eating, sleeping, and going to school. Most of them reported that they understand what their parents say in Vietnamese but answer in English and/or although they converse with their parents in English they have learned Vietnamese from their grandparents and close relatives such as aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived in the same household. Most of students at this level are very young, between 18 and 20 years of age.

b)—Intermediate level:

The teaching goals of this level are to provide students with reading materials which will help them increase their vocabularies, enhance their knowledge about Vietnam and improve their ability to describe and narrate in writing and verbally. Texts are short readings to introduce them to the land and the people of Vietnam: geography, climate and weather, social, cultural and religious customs, historical figures, and folklores.

To be admitted to this course, students must be able to read a simple text, although they may still have some problems understanding sentences or paragraphs with complex grammatical structures and less frequently used vocabularies. The students must be able to write short and simple descriptions, which may have gaps in comprehension and errors in spelling or tone marks.

c)—Advanced level:

The goals of this course are (a) to teach students how to write an expository essay and learn oral skills to present papers and debate; and (b) to introduce special issues related to history and culture, or to social, political, and economic developments in contemporary Vietnam. Students admitted to this level must be able to read newspaper articles, short stories, and poetry. They will be taught how to analyze texts, debate, present their research, and write a commentary paper on the issues embedded in the readings and in movies.

Looking forward:

The population of ethnic students, including students of Vietnamese heritage, is growing in many American universities. Therefore, while the number of American universities that offer Vietnamese language courses is still not large, the number has slowly increased. This fact indicates that there is a shift in attitude toward Vietnamese and that it is gaining importance in American academic institutions. Nevertheless, one fact remains, apart from UCSD, these universities are not ready to offer Vietnamese as a heritage language but as a foreign language, partly because the demand for Vietnamese courses is still small; and partly because they do not know how to address this specific need.

Unlike non-native speakers learning Vietnamese for the first time, Vietnamese Heritage learners have been raised in homes where Vietnamese is spoken as the first language; they often speak Vietnamese, or at least understand what is spoken; and therefore, courses in Vietnamese as a heritage language require different strategies: different instructions, different learning materials, and different classroom practices to motivate students to learn and to continue learning their heritage language and the cultural heritage embedded in the language.

Since the nature and conditions of the population of Vietnamese immigrants around the world keeps changing with waves of new comers, who bring new attitudes, knowledge, and cultural practices to contribute to their communities overseas, it is necessary for teachers of Vietnamese Heritage Language to periodically make adjustments in curriculum, choices of learning and teaching materials, and teaching strategies to adapt to the new conditions and new generations of heritage learners. Here I am suggesting that we have to periodically redefine the meaning of “Vietnamese Heritage Language”. As many things in the world are globalized, so is Vietnamese language and culture. Last summer I returned to Vietnam to work with a humanitarian mission and do research. When walking into a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed that its waiters and waitresses greeted me at the door and said: Xin chào, a Vietnamese version of the English “Hello”, without addressing me as a middle age female customer, as proper Vietnamese cultural practice and language etiquette require. I also noticed that the big sign on the door of a Vietnamese language school also reads Xin chào, instead of Xin chào quý khách, to welcome its potential customers. Proper Vietnamese cultural practice and language etiquette require that when you greet someone you address that person by name, title, age, or gender, e.g. Xin chào ông/bà/chú/ cô/ bác/anh…. In the grammar of Vietnamese language, Xin chào is not a complete sentence because chàois a transitiveverb that needs a direct object. In Vietnamese culture this type of speech is considered nói trỏng, implying the speaker addresses no one when s/he speaks, which is impolite and improper, especially when someone in a junior position is addressing a senior. Considering that I am already a grandmother, I have to admit, I did not welcome such greetings. Recently, when a westerner ran into me on a street of Saigon, she said: Xin chào! - meaning “Hello”. I realized then such an “impolite and improper” greeting has become entrenched and internationalized. It is becoming a permanent part of our language. We have to do something about it, either by waging a campaign to correct those speakers in classrooms, on television and radio, or on billboards at every street corner, or by accepting it and coming up with new rule to accommodate this cultural and linguistic change.

When did this change start? Perhaps, since Vietnam is trying to be a democratic country, Vietnamese people are trying to democratize the Vietnamese language by making it simpler. The complicated honorific system and terms of address – ông, bà, chú, cô, bác, anh, em…- would be thrown out and something equal to the “I” and “You” in English would be adopted instead. In other words, the Vietnamese language would be Anglicized or Americanized to catch up with the democratic spirit of the West. I would not be surprised to see that, 50 years from now, some of the vocabularies or patterns of speech that we use today will have become obsolete. Can we blame people who initiated the change? I think not. Our language adapts to changes in our living environment the way we do. That is why we call a spoken language sinh ngữ or a living language. If a spoken language fails to become useful in our lives, it will become obsolete; such were chữ Hán and chữ Nôm. The bottom line is, as teachers of language we must also adopt and adapt to changes in our living language by keeping up with new developments in the language and make the necessary changes to provide good services to our students.

Having said all that, I have to admit teaching Heritage Languages still is a new ground in the field of Linguistics, at least in the United States. Researchers in the field have been working to gather data and trying to provide teachers in the field with more understanding and suggestions. For the time being, teachers in the HLP, including teachers of Vietnamese, are left to their own devices in structuring and restructuring their courses, choosing new teaching materials, and changing their teaching approaches to adapt to the globalization of the heritage languages.

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