Building contexts, making connections: the use of local history and minorities’ heritage in language teaching

Antonina Joukovski (project coordinator), Dr. Igor Joukovski (project coordinator), Dr. Oksana Morgunova

The combination of heritage language teaching and foreign language teaching with local history information has a stable positive effect on students in cultural transition and in multicultural environments. This was noted by Makarova in her study of language learners of migrant and dual-heritage speakers in Switzerland[1]. In the US, where in 2000s the re-emergence of heritage and community language policy was put in the national spotlight, the combination of language and local history studies is widely seen as a national resource, according to Valdes[2]. The project is aligned with the European Centre for Modern Languages of the Council of Europe second medium-term programme (2004-2007)  “Languages for social cohesion – Language education in a multilingual and multicultural Europe”[3]. This project highlighted the role of language education in improving mutual understanding and respect among the citizens of Europe and pointed out the importance of local history in the process of learning. Still, the existing programmes of combining language teaching and heritage are more focused on the diversity in classrooms and call for valuing individual histories, national cultures and the family heritages of students. For example, observing similar programmes in the USA, Seals argued for the importance of recognizing students’ heritage languages, cultures, and individual goals and identities in teaching programs[4]. The novelty of our project was in seeing local history as facilitating language acquisition factor and assisting integration as a by-product of language teaching.

The project was conducted in France, Great Britain, Cyprus, Poland, Denmark and Germany with participation of local schools, libraries, universities and migrant communities, which on a sociological level were very different and therefore provided the opportunity to test, also from a sociolinguistic perspective, the relationship between the heritage studies and language teaching.

In order to avoid incompatibility of the results and ensure the coherence of the final teaching outcomes, the decision was made to limit the scope of the material to Russian-language materials, despite the multiplicity of nationalities and ethnicities of students and teachers taking part in the project. The Russian-speaking population of Europe has grown significantly since the demise of the Soviet Union and continues to grow in most European countries. With the increasing number of multinational families and children growing up in such families, innovative teaching materials for heritage speakers of Russian are in great demand, which was confirmed by questionnaires in the early stages of the project. Russian language does not lose its appeal to adult learners in the participating countries and in the EU countries at large too, and we had a great response from teachers of Russian as foreign language during and after the project.

Each national team conducted its own search for the relevant local history materials, yet the epistemological issues of cultural heritage as an extremely complex notion had to be discussed during the project, and a special workshop was organised jointly with the University of Sterling in Scotland. Since the early 2000s when Stuart Hall famously criticised the peculiar inflection of associating heritage exclusively with the past, the creative nature of cultural search has become acknowledged and accepted in contemporary societies. However, Russian heritage is validated in the European tradition as a set of names and classical creations of the 19th and early 20th century. In some ways this heritage also dominates the migrants’ perception of what is national culture; heritage speakers seek to empower themselves by connecting knowledge of the language they are learning with this rich cultural tradition. The teams had to find a healthy balance in choosing the stories and developing them in the language material.

It is probably too early to analyse the results of the work. Videos, audio files and texts are placed on a specially designed YouTube Channel and it is slowly creating an audience. They are also promoted among the professionals at conferences and by the teams in specialised groups on Facebook and other social networks for teachers of the language. We hope the materials will have a long life in foreign language learning as open source and free to download teaching materials.





[1]   Makarova, E. (2014). Courses in the language and culture of origin and their impact on youth development in cultural transition: A study amongst immigrant and dual-heritage youth in Switzerland. In P. P. Trifonas & T. Aravossitas (Eds.), Rethinking heritage language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2]  Valdes, G. (2001). Heritage language students: Profiles and possibilities. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America. Preserving a national resource (pp. 37–80). McHenry: Center for Applied Linguistics.

[3]  McPake, J., Tinsley, T. (2007). Valuing all languages in Europe. ECML Research and Development Report Series. European Centre for Modern Languages. Council of Europe.

[4]  Seals, C. (2016). Heritage language education: valuing the languages, literacies, and cultural competencies of immigrant youth. Current Issues in Language Planning 17(3).