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Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project Now Available

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A woman sits at a table with two young children. A woman can be seen seated in the background. There is a microphone on the table.
Alice Pratt, a native Hupa speaker, teaches Hupa words to children in a day care program (detail). A day care teacher can be seen in the background. She is teaching words such as the names of features of the face and counting. Photo by Lee Davis, Hoopa, California, July 1, 1982. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, Library of Congress.

The Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project was conducted in the summer of 1982 by the American Folklife Center to survey selected religious and secular ethnic community-based schools conducted, at least in part, in a language other than English to document the continued ethnolinguistic and cultural diversity of the United States. This collection is now available online.

A woman standing at the front of a classroom holds a cloth above her head and behind her. Childen can be seen in chairs, some with their hands raised.
At the Islamic School of Seattle, Seattle, Washington, Sr. Diana Akhgar demonstrates dressing in a chaddor, the outer garment of the women of Iran, in a social studies lesson on the Iran. May 14, 1982. Photo by Susan Dwyer-Schick. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, Library of Congress.

The project was inspired by the experience of fieldworkers during the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, where they found that ethnic and language schools were often central to communities and helped to keep ethnic heritage alive. There is also a good deal of documentation of ethnic schools to be found in that project, which is also online.

Although the arts and culture passed on by word of mouth is central to the study of folklore, the formal training of traditions and the informal transmission of culture often go hand in hand. In immigrant, minority, and religious communities it is especially common for traditions and languages to be formally taught as well as passed on in the traditional fashion. So the Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project explored these connections between formal and informal transmission of culture.


A group of children laugh and make faces at the camera.
Students at the West End Synagogue, Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Burt Feintuch, 1982. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools of America Project collection, Library of Congress.

In order to cover as many schools as possible in many parts of the United States, each fieldworker worked on their own documenting a school by taking photographs, interviewing teachers, parents, and students, and collecting examples of curriculum materials. The fieldworkers documented 23 ethnic schools in the United States including an Armenian school in Watertown, Massachusetts; a Cambodian school in Houston, Texas; a Chinese school in San Antonio, Texas; a  Czech school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; a Dutch school in Pella, Iowa; a German-Russian school in Strasburg, North Dakota; a Greek school in Birmingham, Alabama; a Greek school in Buffalo, New York; a Hebrew school in Nashville, Tennessee; a Hungarian school in New Brunswick, New Jersey; a Hupa language school in Hoopa Valley, California; an Islamic school in Seattle, Washington; a Japanese school in Los Angeles, California; a Korean school in Silver Spring, Maryland; a Latvian school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; a Lebanese school in Birmingham, Alabama; a Polish school in Chicago, Illinois; a Portuguese school in Taunton, Massachusetts; a Turkish school in New York, New York; a Ukrainian school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; and the East Harlem Music School in New York, New York.

Boys and girls wearing flower wreaths on their heads stand in a group. Two hold flowers and one girl is carrying a cake.
Milda Kalve’s 4th graders singing Midsummer Ligo songs, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, May 22, 1982 (detail). Photo by Richard Vidutis. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, Library of Congress.

Because the fieldwork was done in the summer months, not all the schools were holding classes. Classroom activity was documented at the schools that did have classes, but there were also many other activities to document. A Latvian school held its graduation and a midsummer festival at the time they were visited, for example, and other schools had summer activities. The fieldworkers also took the time to document community activities, showing the connections between ethnic communities and the schools. Schools often function as community centers with events that reach out to many people in addition to parents and teachers. Ethnic communities often support their ethnic school in order to foster exactly this kind of rich relationship between school and community.

The languages taught at these schools were considered by teachers and parents to be the most important part of the curriculum. But only two of the school taught regular week day classes, functioning as regular schools and teaching all subjects. The rest were weekend schools and a few also held summer classes. Teachers and parents acknowledged that this was not sufficient for language fluency without additional instruction. Yet all felt this was worthwhile as the goal was for the children to develop some vocabulary and a sense of their ethnic roots through some familiarity with their language heritage. For the religious schools, there was a desire for the children to learn the vocabulary of liturgy where services were conducted in a language other than English.

In this recording Lee Davis talks with Dr. Ruth Bennett of Humboldt State University about the bilingual education program for Hupa (also spelled Hoopa) children in Humboldt County, California. At about 16 minutes into the interview she talks with Alice Pratt, introduced as a Hupa Medicine woman (pictured at the top of this blog). She is a native Hupa speaker who was already working with children to pass on the language before the bilingual program began. At the time, all the native Hupa speakers were over 60 years old. She talks about her own upbringing and her experience in a boarding school that was set up to prevent students from speaking their native language and speaking English only. Although Pratt is enthusiastic about teaching Hupa, she is not optimistic about the language continuing to be passed on from her students to another generation. Today Hupa is a critically endangered language with about 2o speakers. Some of the surviving speakers learned as a result of language revitalization efforts by Alice Pratt and others, and those efforts continue today. Today a strong interest in preserving indigenous languages gives hope to programs doing this work.

portrait of a woman
Leona Kaplan, teacher at the Czech language school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (detail). Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools of America Project collection, Library of Congress.

The Czech language school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has a long history. Czech immigrants were among the first pioneers in the state and formed a strong community. The school began in the 1870s with weekend classes to teach Czech language and culture, with a curriculum enhanced with songs and poetry. Today there is a summer intensive program, as few students today come from homes where Czech is spoken. Leona Kaplan, a teacher first and second grade students, talked with interviewer Jana Fast about her students. The interview starts out slowly as she talks about curriculum and teaching methods, then her enthusiasm becomes evident when she talks about students discovering the Czech language and their heritage.

Much of what Leona Kaplan talks about is common among the language schools. Students are faced with a great deal of repetition and study as they learn languages but often value the experience because of the cultural content of programs and the ways that the language, however much they manage to learn, opens up a greater understanding of their heritage.

A woman and a man holding a child in Japanese dress stand by a table of many lit candles.
Rev. Masao Kakuryu Kodani holding his daughter Masumi at the Bon Festival at the Senshin Buddhist Church of Los Angeles (the woman is not identified). Photo by Amy Skillman, 1982. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, Library of Congress.

While the Czech school described above is a secular school, a number of the schools documented are associated with religious groups. The Senshin Gakuin and the Dharma School of the Senshin Buddhist Church of Los Angeles, California includes a Japanese language program and the Dharma School, a Buddhist program. The Buddhist program includes cultural classes, such as dance. The Bon Festival at the Temple was documented as part of the documentation of the relationship of the schools to the community. In this interview Rev. Masao Kakuryu Kodani, who headed these programs, talks about how he came to become a minister and about the history of the programs.

A man sits on the floor playing a bowed string instrument as children look on.
Mouk Phan plays the tro for a group of adults and children in Khmer Village, Houston, Texas (detail). Photo by Frank Proschan, April 25, 1982. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, Library of Congress.

In a Khmer Village in Texas, folklorist Frank Proschan documented a community school and community activities. The Khmer Village school was a community center, providing classes in Cambodian language and writing for children and adult classes as well, such as English as a second language. Cultural traditions were being passed on to the next generation in the community as well. So adapting to a new country and preserving the traditions brought by the first generation of Cambodian immigrants were both important to this small community. In this example, Proschan recorded Mouk Phan playing the tro, a small fiddle, and singing some traditional songs for a group of adults and children.

The Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection includes documentation of many types of ethnic schools in the United States in the 1980s along with some documentation of the communities in which they are found. The materials are fun to explore as many recordings and photographs of interviews, events, classes, and music may be found. The items here are just a few that caught my interest. Go and have your own adventure among the languages and groups represented in this unique collection.


Bradunas, Elena. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress : For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1988. Electronic copy available from the Hathi Trust.

Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, Library of Congress.

Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, Library of Congress. This ethnographic project conducted by the American Folklife Center includes documentation of several ethnic schools.

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