Words of wisdom from a Canadian coalition

Interview with Trudie Aberdeen and Nina Paulovicova of the International and Heritage Language Association (IHLA) in Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada

August 31, 2020


Last year, we posted on the HLSE website two inspirational interviews with coalitions of heritage language (HL) schools in other countries: one in the U.S. and one in Iceland. We are pleased to post an interview with another coalition of HL schools, this time in Edmonton, Canada.


The International and Heritage Languages Association (IHLA, which members refer to as "EEL-lah"), which was born in 1977, was awarded the prestigious UNESCO Linguapax Prize in 2016 for its dedication to the promotion of linguistic diversity for over 40 years. Today IHLA offers its member schools numerous benefits, including regular professional development.


We spoke with Trudie Aberdeen (IHLA Coordinator and co-founder of Edmonton's Truong Lac Hong School) and Nina Paulovicova (new IHLA president and founder of Slovak Heritage School in Edmonton) to learn more about this coalition's history, values, and achievements.


How did IHLA get started?

In 1971, Canada took the stance that it would be a bilingual country (English and French) and would promote multilingualism as a Canadian value. With funding that followed from this, a conference for "weekend schools" was organized in Alberta in 1977. Upon meeting each other, HL schools discovered that their challenges were similar regardless of the language being taught. This was the birth of IHLA!


We have only used the name International and Heritage Languages Association since 2003. We chose to include the word "international" to demonstrate that students who speak these languages are able create opportunities between Alberta and the rest of the world.


How is IHLA funded?

It is a non-profit organization and receives funds from Alberta Education, the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission, and the Alberta Association for Multicultural Education. We also collect membership fees from schools, which cost $25 per year per school plus an additional $5 per teacher at each school. If there is sufficient subsidy, IHLA can distribute funds to member schools each year.


How many schools are members, and which languages are represented?

We currently have 29 member schools and cover the following languages: Chinese, Hindi, Armenian, Czech, Italian, German, Farsi/Persian, Marathi, Tigrigna, Filipino, Spanish, Portuguese, Gujarati, Nepali, Greek, Ukrainian, Kiswahili, Polish, Turkish, Arabic, Somali, French, Punjabi, Russian, Slovak, Telugu, Korean, and Vietnamese.


What are the benefits of IHLA membership?

Members have an opportunity to join our Mentorship Program (HL schools learning from each other), receive a newsletter (see edition from July 2020), and have free access to teachers' professional development specifically for teachers of heritage language schools. We also provide professional guidance to set up school policies and to develop sound pedagogical approaches.


We should note that in order to be an "IHLA member in good standing," a HL school must pay the membership fee, complete a registration form, participate in the Mother Language Day celebration, volunteer at IHLA fundraising events, and participate in at least three IHLA sponsored professional development sessions.


What is Mother Language Day?

Each year we host a celebration in which we celebrate all of our languages in the city. We invite the mayor, provincial politicians, and special guests.


We host this for multiple reasons. The first and most important is that we want the children to have a place to celebrate their languages. An important part of language learning is that students develop positive affect and attitudes towards language learning. To keep a language community vibrant and active, the language needs to belong in the wider community.


Second, this event celebrates language learning and we share the work we do with the non-heritage language speaking community. By bringing the community to see heritage language schools, we build awareness of the importance of our mission. We get politicians to see the importance of our work and they get an opportunity to meet their constituents as well.


And, even more importantly, Mother Language Day is a really fun and joyous time!


Do any of the HL schools in Edmonton run without being an official not-for-profit organization?

In Alberta and western Canada, yes, it is allowed. However, if you want funding, insurance, and protection from being sued, then you need not-for-profit status.


That being said, in order to gain not-for-profit status, your community must know how to do the paperwork and know the value of doing that paperwork. For example, a new Somali school could get started – but the community would be new to Canada and wouldn't know how to navigate the system. From a social justice point of view it is unfair. No one tells you how to set up a HL school.


Is the IHLA able to help new HL schools get started?

We aim to support heritage language schools in whatever way we can. Our organization has been around for a long time. A new community might have a particular challenge, and chances are that we know a school that has had the same problem and can give some advice. [View IHLA's video about starting a HL school.]


Newly arrived immigrant communities often want school to resemble “back home.” But these (often more traditional) instructional approaches might not work in Canada for a multitude of reasons. Education is different in Canada than in other countries and the children might not react well to a different style of teaching and learning at a weekend school. A second reason is that once children are in Canada, they are no longer surrounded by the language. The students do not get the same language exposure so the teaching approach has to be different. A third reason is that HL schools need to respond to their parental expectations – but parents are not always aware of what is possible in only a few hours a week!


What kind of professional development does IHLA offer?

We know from experience that teachers at heritage language schools seek different types of professional development than do the administrators at these schools. Examples of the types of training sessions we offer for teachers would be: creating positive classroom routines, task-based language teaching, also called TBLT, evaluation tools, teaching global citizenship, and tips for finding good online listening passages (and creating exercises for them).


Examples of the types of training sessions we offer for the administrators would be: first principals’ meeting & discussion about teacher contracts, creating a school handbook for parents, second principals’ meeting and review of the IHLA professional standards, school field-trips, third Principals’ Meeting and hosting a school-wide Annual General Meeting, and designing report cards.


What challenges do the HL schools in Edmonton face?

The number one problem is that they have no place to teach. Finding a space is the hugest problem, followed by finding funding, followed by trying to attract teachers who able to teach heritage language.


Everyone fancies themselves a teacher even if they are not. Even if you are teacher that does not make you a language teacher, and even if you are a language teacher, that does not make you a heritage language teacher. Just because you can get a room full of kids together does not mean that you can set things up so that they are developmentally appropriate, and even if they are, they might not promote language development. It's really tough to find teachers! You have to take who you can find. If you can find them, you won't keep them long if you can't pay them.


This is exactly where an umbrella organization can step in and provide professional development and help motivate and educate teachers. Principals of HL schools can send the teachers to the professional development because it looks good on their website and looks good to parents: "our teachers are not just regular teachers, but there is an organization that offers professional development and webinars and we participate." It is actually a lot easier now because so much training happens online.


Your website states that you support HL teachers with getting teaching credentials. What does that mean?

If you come from overseas and you have a teacher's certificate from your home country, you would have to go back to university in Canada and get credentials redone in order to teach at a regular elementary school in Alberta (about four or five university courses). So one of the things that IHLA can do is steer teachers in the right direction to get that done. Once upon a time (but not anymore), IHLA had enough funds to also help pay the teachers' tuition for university courses that they needed to follow in order to get certified in Alberta.


In Alberta, if your HL school has at least one Alberta-certificated teacher, then your school can possibly offer lessons to high school-aged students that would result in high school credits. The HL school has to design an Alberta-approved curriculum document which the school system has to approve. It's not easy to do, but it's possible.


What is your advice for HLSE?

One of the tragedies and one of the strengths of HL schools – and also of umbrella organizations like IHLA – is that they are so person-dependent. If you get someone who knows what they are doing and willing to work hard and is a good advocate and is willing to get out there and network and shake the hands of politicians, you can have an amazing organization.


The problem is that person eventually gets tired and doesn't want to carry on. When that happens, that organization has the potential to fall apart if the person running things has not groomed someone else to step into his or her place. It is advisable to your HL schools and to HLSE to figure how to set things up long term. Of course you are usually too focused on the now and surviving in the moment, just to get by. But someone has to put into the foresight to think, "How is this going to exist without me?"


Also, remember that starting from scratch and building something like HLSE up is the hardest work. HL schools should be interested in an umbrella organization because it shows that they participate in professional activities, for instance if training is offered. We see that being in IHLA encourages our member schools to research best practices and to do better.


Additional information:


Understanding Heritage Language Schools in Alberta

Trudie Aberdeen's dissertation about heritage languages in the Alberta


"An Ecology of Heritage Language Umbrella Organizations: Developing Collaborative Practices between Iceland and Canada"

a paper by Trudie Aberdeen from IHLA in Canada and Renata Emilsson-Peskova from Móðurmál in Iceland about how umbrella organizations can benefit HL programs.

 

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