Trudie Aberdeen is a long-time language educator and social justice advocate. She is currently working on completing her PhD on the topic of heritage language acquisition. In addition, she teaches English to adult newcomers to Canada. Her academic interests include refugee education, multilingual literacy instructional practices, language conservation, action research, and language instruction for heritage language learners. Her research can be found in the following journals: The Manitoba TEAL, Multilingual Discourses, and the 9th Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition (LESLLA) Symposium. She also serves as the book review editor to the Canadian Journal of Action Research.
Hal J. Friesen: The passion for your work is clear in every aspect of your writing. How long has heritage language acquisition been a part of your life? What started it all?
Trudie Aberdeen: I was raised in a middle-class, English-speaking family in Alberta. My childhood was fairly normal. And when I was a little bit older, similarly to most rebellious teenagers, I took my teenage angst and raged against my parents. While others were sexing, drugging, rock-n-rolling and doing other “naughty things”, I inflicted on my father what I thought might have been one of the most painful childhood revolts I could think of: I went to Campus St. Jean and took university in French! On my personal journey to bilingualism, I learned about the power of language along the way.
Contrary to current popular belief, I’m not really a natural when it comes to language learning. I’m someone who learns with moderate aptitude and great effort. I was always fairly successful in school, so learning that language learning was hard was a shock for me. So despite by best enthusiasm, I wasn’t successful my first year and was put on academic probation. Because I struggled with the language I was in a place very few white, middle class, English-speaking women with average intelligence ever get to be: I wasn’t part of the mainstream. For me, this is when I realized how language (or lack thereof) can limit one’s chances of success. I finished my degree successfully, although it took me more than four years and I had to spend a year in language classes in Quebec, but I eventually triumphed.
I taught in Japan for several years in an international school. I was the English as a second language teacher to elementary school aged children whose parents moved temporarily to Japan for business or diplomatic missions. I saw how quickly many of my students learned English and how quickly many of them forgot their mother tongue. I saw the parents who were “trapped” because if they moved home they could no longer put their children in school because the children couldn’t read or write their “mother tongue”. I also worried a lot for my students who appeared to have learning disabilities. Parents, colleagues and I often asked, “What is this child’s issue? Is it a language learning inability or something bigger?” Often it is difficult to know.
When I started my doctoral studies, I began to take interest in adult literacy learners. In my field of English as a second language teaching and learning, literacy learners are adults who grew up never learning to read their mother tongue, mostly due to limited opportunities because of gender, poverty, or war. Their lack of first language education impacts on their opportunity to learn English. They often struggle with things that most of us take for granted: following instructions for over-the-counter medication, signing their children’s homework log, figuring out a map, and reading street signs. Despite all of their challenges, all of those I have worked with have an undeniable spirit, determined outlook, and an often overlooked sense of intelligence.
My dissertation, however, looks at heritage language learners. These are usually the children of immigrants who have to navigate cultures and languages, not being conventionally “Canadian” and first-language English speakers, but not being of the same language and culture as their parents, either. Most of these children struggle to keep the language of their parents and cannot without the help of a larger language community and school. My work is looking at how schools and communities can support these students.
Heritage language learners and adult literacy learners do not initially seem connected, but they share many commonalities. Both groups often are trying to learn language in an environment that is limited in exposure to language. Both are often trying to learn language without literacy. In many instances, these two groups can be within the same family. Some immigrant parents (especially those with limited literacy) can struggle to learn English and their children can struggle to maintain their first language. In my line of work I have met many people who are unable to have a basic conversation with their parents because they do not know enough of each other’s language to exchange more than limited small talk.
HJF: There seems to be a message or end goal with your writing / research. What is it you hope to achieve at the end of your dissertation?
TA: I hope to show the world exactly how much expertise exists in the field of heritage language education in Alberta. I wish politicians, educators, and scholars to know about the challenges and limitations that programs face so that they can receive better support in doing what they do best.
HJF: Who has inspired you as either a writer or researcher?
TA: My four favorite researchers are Dr. Olenka Bilash, Dr. Kenneth Schaeffer, Dr. Nick Ellis, and Dr. Elaine Tarone. All four are gifted scholars and educators. However, what I admire most about them is their compassion and vision for making the world better for others.
HJF: Would you be willing to share one or two stories from your experience as a language educator?
TA: In 2004, I had a beautiful kindergarten student from Sweden called Hedda. She was a dream child: polite, kind, energetic, brilliant, and friendly. She started school in September and by Christmas she was speaking English well. Her reading level was near the top of her class. At the parent-teacher interviews, I gave her parents “the talk.” I warned them about language loss and the importance of first language maintenance. I told them that they had better start planning for her Swedish or else it would be gone. I recommended that they find her a tutor and begin reading lessons as soon as possible.
While Hedda’s mother seemed convinced by my message, her father was less so. He responded firmly, but politely, that Hedda was a little girl. She had just made a huge adjustment, according to her father, by leaving her extended family behind in Sweden and moving to Japan, and furthermore, she needed to worry about enjoying herself, not planning for her future education. I responded that while I respected his point of view, he should at least consider my suggestion. He told me that he would think about it after his family returned from their holiday in Thailand.
Sadly, all four members of Hedda’s family were lost in the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people on Boxing Day. I often think of her and her beautiful family. I often think of the advice I gave to her parents, and consider what her father responded to me. For language learning, we need to have long-term planning, and to prepare for what is coming ahead. At the same time, we need to remember that this moment might be all that we have.
HJF: Why do you personally think language is important?
TA: If you ask a brain researcher or a psychologist, they will tell you about all of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Of course, I believe all of these things are true such as bilingualism increasing intelligence and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Still for me, the most important aspects of language learning are social in nature. Language connects people to opportunities and it connects us to one another.