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Heritage Language Learning: Embracing Linguistic and Cultural Identity

In a captivating guest lecture delivered on May 15, 2024, Dr. Chiung-Yao Wang, Assistant Professor at National Central University, offered invaluable insights into the dynamics between linguistic and cultural identity. Drawing from her experience as a former Mandarin Chinese instructor in both Michigan State University and University of Colorado Boulder for 10 years, Dr. Wang provided a unique perspective on heritage language learning. The lecture, titled “Heritage Language Learning: Embracing Linguistic and Cultural Identity,” was hosted as part of the Cultural Diversity and Multilingualism in Taiwan’s Media class under the English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) Program – International Leadership Courses in Communication, instructed by Dr. Chiahsin Yeh. 


▲Fig 1. Dr. Chiung-Yao Wang from National Central University is the lecturer of this speech.


Dr. Wang commenced the speech with a quotation about learning a second language: “To have a second language is to have a second soul.” She fostered a welcoming atmosphere by asking the participants about their experiences with second language acquisition and an estimate of spoken languages in the world. This interactive discussion unveiled a tapestry of diverse perspectives shaped by the students’ distinctive backgrounds and experiences.


▲Fig 2. Attendees included students enrolled in the Cultural Diversity and Multilingualism in Taiwan’s Media course. The diversity in nationality unveiled a tapestry of diverse perspectives. 


Addressing the topic of heritage language learning, Dr. Wang discussed the challenges faced by both students and teachers in creating an effective learning environment. She illustrated this with the Mandarin terms 後天 (hòu tiān; the day after tomorrow) and 前天 (qián tiān; the day before yesterday). Reflecting on American culture’s forward-looking perspective, which often emphasizes future possibilities over past events, she noted common misunderstandings and misuse of these terms. Connecting to the idea of having a second soul, Dr. Wang emphasized that embracing a heritage language allows individuals to develop a deeper cultural understanding and appreciation.


Dr. Wang also shared her experience persuading students in the United States to learn Mandarin using traditional Chinese characters instead of simplified ones. As a coordinator for the Chinese program at the University of Colorado Boulder, she admired the professors who insisted on starting students with traditional Chinese. “The beauty of traditional Chinese is beyond description,” she expressed, illustrating her point with the Chinese character愛 (ài; love).  “How can you love someone without a heart?” she asked, highlighting the character’s radical and connotation.


Shifting to the topic of identity, Dr. Wang showcased examples of how individuals’ identities are shaped through their language choices. She referred to a graduate student as a second-generation immigrant in the United States, whose parents spoke Cantonese to each other but used English to communicate with her, causing her to get so confused as not to be able to say a word until the age of three. Another example involved a Thai-American who had never thought about learning Thai, but often pretended to understand her relatives’ Thai speaking for showing ethnic solidarity. Although these cases differ, Dr. Wang led the class in discussions to understand the mechanisms and mentality behind these language choices. 


“Heritage language plays a role as a door to a new culture and a window to another part of you,” Dr. Wang concluded, emphasizing that languages and cultures are inseparable. Dr. Yeh added that as the number of immigrants keeps rising up worldwide, efforts to explore the dynamics between linguistics and culture are crucial not only for language preservation but also for individuals’ identity of various kinds.


▲Fig 3. A group photo of all the attendees from this guest lecture.


Sponsored by the Program on Bilingual Education for Students in College, the Cultural Diversity and Multilingualism in Taiwan’s Media course aims to guide students through the perspectives of various social minorities and the corresponding language issues in Taiwan’s media. This course anticipates learners to understand the critical factors that shape social identity and language use at different levels, exploring how social identity impacts language use and how language use reveals social identity. Through Dr. Wang’s insightful speech, students are expected to gain deeper insights into the dynamic interplay between language and identity.


For more information about the EMI Program – International Leadership Courses in Communication at College of Communication, National Chengchi University, please visit https://comm.nccu.edu.tw/eng/PageFront?fid=11104


▲Fig 4. The Spring 2024 Syllabus of International Leadership Courses in Communication.


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