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  • Writer's pictureGisi Cannizzaro

At the heart of a growing field of HL research: the NHLRC

November 19, 2023

NHLRC teacher workshop (2018)



According to a U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, in 2019, about 23% of school-age children in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home. So, it is no wonder that the U.S. has a federally funded Title VI language resource center, the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC).

Located in Los Angeles, California, the NHLRC’s has a mission “to develop effective pedagogical approaches to teaching heritage language learners, both by creating a research base and by pursuing curriculum design, materials development, and teacher education.” At the heart of this mission, though, is celebrating the importance of heritage languages as well as intergenerational transmission.


In order to achieve its mission, the NHLRC has focused on conducting research into the linguistic profiles and pedagogical needs of heritage language speakers, and translating this knowledge into practical professional development for language teachers. The NHLRC organizes conferences and workshops, publishes a journal of HL research, and even records podcasts. However, the center understands that outreach must also involve families and communities. We connected with Arturo Díaz, Managing Director at the NHLRC, to find out more about the research center’s activities and what the latest trends are in heritage language research in the U.S.



According to the website of the NHLRC, “The creation of a national center dedicated to heritage language education attests to the importance of this [research] field to the nation.” Do you think that people consider multilingualism important in the U.S.?

Until the late 1990s, multilingualism was viewed more as an exception or at least an oddity. Now it is generally seen more as the norm, and the teaching and learning of home languages has become more valuable.


However, there is much variation depending on location and audience. For instance, many educators and even pediatricians still discourage parents from speaking their home language out of misinformed beliefs and a lack of training in multilingualism.


Many educators and even pediatricians still discourage parents from speaking their home language out of misinformed beliefs . . .

Why is California an appropriate location for the NHLRC?

Almost 27% of California’s population five years of age and older is foreign born, and 42% speak a home language other than English, according to the U.S. Census Bureau from 2005 to 2009.


How old is the NHLRC?

The first funding cycle was from 2006 to 2009. We started our fifth four-year funding cycle in August 2022.  


How reliable is the funding, and does it depend on which political party is in power?

Our funding comes from the Department of Education’s Title VI Language Resource Center program, which is an initiative to improve the nation’s capacity to teach and learn foreign languages effectively, particularly less commonly taught languages. It grants funding in four-year cycles and, at the end of each cycle, we have to reapply. The competition is stiff, but we have been awarded a grant ever since we were first established. The amount varies from one cycle to another, and there is no link to a particular political party.


How is the NHLRC structured?

The Center was originally formed under the directorship of Professor Olga Kagan, who worked with co-directors of research and education to conduct the programmed research studies and professional development activities. They oversaw the research and teaching aspects, while the managing director handled the administrative end. Prof. Kagan passed away in 2018, and the Center has continued since then with the co-directors and managing director continuing in their respective roles. The co-directors have always been affiliated with other universities in order to increase the scope of the Center’s outreach efforts. Although the loss of a founder can be a disruptive and possibly catastrophic occurrence, this decentralize structured helped the center continue with its mission.


The center also has two advisory boards, one research focused and one pedagogy focused, which meet once a year. There is some faculty on the advisory boards from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) where our center is located, but most come from other universities, both domestic and international.


Community-based HL schools have a long history in the U.S., both in terms of research and professional development.

What is your relationship with the U.S. Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language ( CBHL) Schools? HLE Network interviewed the head of the coalition some time ago and now works with that team on some joint international projects.

The U.S. Coalition is a nationwide initiative in the U.S. that has spearheaded the effort to connect heritage language schools across the country in order to increase their visibility and recognition. We have played a supportive role in the coalition’s efforts to document the CBHL schools across the country, and we will continue with such efforts. Their focus is on the HL education that takes place outside of mainstream school settings (“community-based”), whereas our research also includes HL educational settings within a school district, such as dual language immersion (DLI) programs at mainstream schools.

The collaboration began over a decade ago at one of the center’s conferences, when members of the coalition met with the center to discuss how to broaden the scope of these events. As sometimes happens with university initiatives, our conferences back then focused mainly at university level research and instruction, followed by k-12. Our collaboration with the coalition has helped direct our efforts to address community schools, which have a long history in the U.S., both in terms of research and professional development.


The pictures above were taken at NHLRC events in 2018, 2019, and 2023.

Which activities are organized by the NHLRC?

We organize the following activities and resources:

  • An annual research institute (the last one was in June 2023, which was our 14th): the focus was on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on heritage language communities. Our next research institute will be conducted in collaboration with our colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, a campus well-known for its commitment to studies of bilingualism.

  • An International Heritage Language Conference every four years. The last one was hosted entirely online in June 2022. Normally, the conference is in-person, but Los Angeles County had one of the strictest COVID policies in the nation, which made it more complicated to host an in-person event. Notwithstanding the conference format, we always have speakers and participants from several countries. For example, about 12% of our participants in the 2018 conference traveled from 15 countries. That figure jumped to 20% in the online conference which had participants from 19 countries.

  • Summer Heritage Language Teacher Workshops annually since 2009. Before the pandemic, we used to meet in person for a one-week workshop. Participants came from all over the U.S. and we covered their travel and hotel expenses. Since the pandemic, we have conducted the workshop entirely online using synchronous and asynchronous activities. The online format provides a cost-effective means to reach more instructors across levels, but especially community school teachers, who do not generally have the institutional support for professional development that k-16 instructors have.

  • Professional Development courses online, in conjunction with STARTALK that result in a NHLRC certificate.

  • Workshops, for example STARTALK / NHLRC Virtual Teacher Workshops and Project-Based Language-Teaching Workshop. These are free to those who are selected, and only teachers based in the US are eligible; this is due to the source of funding which comes from the federal Department of Education. In our workshops we often have teachers who are responsible for developing curricula for their school districts or university departments – in fact, they are selected for that reason – and we provide them with tools that support HL education, and the rationale behind these, to take back to their localities.

  • Teaching materials in some languages.

  • Podcasts dedicated to heritage language research, education, pedagogy, and lived experience. They address issues that the NHLRC has identified through its surveys, or which have been raised by participants in workshops and conferences. 

  • Heritage Language Journal, started in 2002

  • Most of the articles are authored by US-based scholars, but we do accept and publish papers from outside the US. We have recently transitioned the journal to Brill Publishers to increase its impact and visibility.


Have your events started to take place online because of COVID-19?

Before the pandemic, we had never organized virtual events. The only virtual resource was our Online Workshop on Teaching Heritage Languages, and it was originally designed as asynchronous material to prepare instructors for a face-to-face summer workshop at UCLA. However, the pandemic has shown us the versatility of virtual events, and we have started to include them in our regular programming due to the reach and cost-effectiveness. In fact, our annual teacher workshop has now become completely online in this current grant cycle.


Do you think this research field is growing?

Definitely, there is more interest in Europe, and the number of publications and conferences on the topic attests to the growth of the field.


What do you think are the biggest trends in research at the moment?

  • There is interest in looking at dominant-heritage language pairs where a language other than English is dominant.

  • More and more work is being done on exploring how the two languages interact and affect each other (bidirectional influence), not just the dominant language's effects on the HL.

  • Changes in HL across the lifespan and the process of re-learning a HL are being looked at more closely.

  • HL researchers work on predicting patterns of change based on independent properties of the bilingual's languages and on biographical fact(or)s.

  • The impacts of HL instruction focus on not just linguistic knowledge but on social and emotional development and educational outcomes.

  • Although the vast majority of HL research has been done with university-aged HL learners, there is growing interest in expanding the research base to other contexts (outside the formal school setting) and to other ages (especially earlier in life, in programs such as dual immersion).


NHLRC research institute (2023)

In what way does the research help improve the quality of education offered by HL programs?

Our HL research is being integrated into pedagogical practices. Pedagogical practices are also being more actively researched on HL learners, rather than being assumed or taken from other fields like second language acquisition.


Are some states in the U.S. more active in the area of HL education than others?

School districts tend to have a lot of autonomy, and so vary widely even within the same county in terms of HL education. Glendale Unified School District, for instance, has seven dual language immersion (DLI) programs, four of them with significant numbers of HL students. One of the programs is in Armenian reflecting the fact that Glendale has a huge population of Armenians. In Orange County, where there is a huge Vietnamese population, Vietnamese high school electives and DLIs are fairly widespread. DLI programs are also fairly widespread in Utah, because the Mormon population puts a premium on overseas missions. Factors such as these produce a wide variation at the local and state level.


What kind of international collaboration has the NHLRC been involved in?

One co-director has been involved with international projects in Portugal, Spain, Israel, Germany, and the Netherlands. Multi-site collaboration (within a country or internationally) is beneficial and encouraged!

The pictures above come from NHLCR events in 2019 and 2023.

For more inspiration from across the globe, check out other HLE Network interviews, with experts in countries such as Australia, Switzerland, and Sweden (click the link and be sure to scroll down to see the list of interviews).

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