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Ten Years at AU

The Community-Based Heritage Language Schools Conference has highlighted heritage language instruction taking place in communities nationwide.

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Community-Based Heritage Language Schools Conference 2023 Group Photo

“Community-based heritage language schools are the hidden treasure in our neighborhoods and across the country. We will benefit when we uncover and celebrate this treasure” - Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools board member Tommy Lu

2023 marks the tenth anniversary of the Community-Based Heritage Language Schools (CBHLS) conference, an annual event that uncovers and celebrates the “treasure” of heritage language schools and their work. Conceptualized by the Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools and launched at the American University (AU) School of Education (SOE), the event is an offering of SOE’s Institute for Innovation in Education (IIE) and hosts in-person and virtual attendees from locations worldwide.

Participants include educators; administrators; students; parents; as well as representatives from corporations, nonprofits, and embassies, all of whom view the creation and maintenance of heritage language learning opportunities as fundamental to the livelihoods of immigrants and indigenous peoples in the United States.

“We believe that heritage language schools are a significant part of the national language learning landscape, and the more that their existence and value is recognized and built on, the more prominent this conference will be,” said Danielle Gervais Sodani, director of IIE. “The conference is a potent vehicle for this exposure and an international work shed for highlighting the roles and values in teaching languages that are not taught in public and private schools. I am so proud to be a part of and a contributor to this unique event and work.

Although definitions can vary outside of North America, a heritage language differs from a native language because it is not the first language learned by an individual, which is usually the dominant language of a society. For example, if a person immigrated to America from Japan, matured, and created a family, their offspring could grow up with English being their first (native) and, in some cases, their only language. If the parents, at some point, opted to have them learn Japanese to fortify a cultural bond with Japan, Japanese would be the children’s heritage language as it is affiliated with their lineage. Because instruction of the Japanese language is not common in most US elementary and secondary schools, the children would likely learn it in a heritage language school.

These schools, according to, are “typically nonprofit organizations founded and operated by parents from the respective immigrant or heritage language community for the purpose of maintaining and teaching the language and culture of their heritage.” Heritage language instruction, however, has often occurred among curriculum available via universities and colleges, and languages have been limited. As a result, the Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools was established in 2012 to help realize the ambitions of people seeking to learn heritage languages when and where school systems were unable to accommodate their needs.

Coalition Founder and President Dr. Joy Peyton said, “Although focus on heritage language education in the United States took off in the 1990s, and the National Heritage Language Resource Center was established in 2006, most of the conferences and publications at that time focused on heritage language education in universities, and some in public schools. Community-based schools were not known at all, nor their value recognized. A nationwide group of us decided that a coalition that focuses specifically on these schools needed to be created.”

As the Coalition's heritage language experts facilitated an increase in instruction taking place in community settings – homes, libraries, community centers, etc. – they set their sights on an annual conference to connect leaders from these classes and schools and researchers focused on their existence and value.

“We had just created the Coalition and were looking for a place to hold a conference. A colleague introduced us to Danielle (Sodani), who was then director of AU's Panamá Bilingüe program,” recalled Peyton. “She was excited about this opportunity and became a wonderful collaborator in holding the conferences, over the years adding a remarkable group of people to the conference team. We could not hold this successful event without them!”

Arturo Diaz, Executive Director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center for World Languages; Program Manager of the university’s National Heritage Language Resource Center; and a heritage language speaker of Spanish has experienced the conferences’ advantages first-hand. “The Coalition’s annual conference plays an important part in disseminating vital information that greatly benefits the faculty and staff of community-based heritage language schools and heritage speakers as well, who are not just students but also parents who are sending their children to these schools because they attended them themselves or never had the opportunity to study their home language,” he said.

Founder and Director of the Czech and Slovak School of North Carolina, Coalition board member, and heritage language instructor Dr. Marta McCabe shares a similar assessment of the conferences’ benefits. “Heritage language schools provide crucial support not only to the immigrant groups but also to the larger society by allowing thousands of US citizens to maintain and pursue meaningful connections to their cultural heritage and preparing them to excel in the multilingual and multicultural society of today and tomorrow,” she said.

“The conferences’ wonderful plenary talks and engaging workshops enable people to form global relationships that can be drawn upon in the future. This is exactly what we hoped the conference would provide for its participants, an event to energize like-minded people who are involved in a distinct and beloved cause they really care about!”

Sodani is elated about the positive results the conference generates. “At this year’s conference, participants’ survey results reflected that there are 57 languages being taught in 902 heritage language schools," she said. "Although these amounts are estimated to be much higher, this is one aspect of the essential work and research that takes place each year at the conference. The Coalition board members and us conference organizers look forward to the next ten years of documenting these special schools and their societally indispensable work.”

The CBHLS conference typically takes place during the month of October. To learn more, click here.

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