The Impact of Context on Attitudes Toward Heritage Languages: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in the Asia-Pacific Region


Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 86:3, 241-270


The aim of this article is to investigate minority groups’ attitudes toward their heritage language (HL) as influenced by their local context, together with associated challenges and possibilities (Wiley & Valdés, 2010, p.iii), with a specific focus on Hebrew education and Jewish day schools in different contexts.

This article argues that the study of Hebrew constructs the Jewish sociocultural minority, but this shaping process varies across different national contexts. To provide further insight into these complex, contextual realities, this current qualitative study undertakes a broad comparative approach toward different sociocultural environments in seven Asia Pacific Jewish communities.


The current study is part of a larger ongoing longitudinal research project that began in 2008 utilizing grounded theory methodology. This qualitative research method aims to investigate systematic social processes existing within human relations and actions and to conceptualize them (Strauss & Corbin, 1997). It enables us to follow patterns of interaction and behaviors that are grounded in real-life events. The two researchers constituted an insider-outside team; that is, one researcher grew up in the Asia Pacific region and also taught in an Australian Jewish day school, so is a product of diaspora culture, while the other researcher is Israeli.


We investigated 11 Jewish schools, one located in each of the four Asian centers (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore), one located in New Zealand, and six located in the two Australian cities where 87% of Australian Jewry lives, three in Melbourne and three in Sydney. Altogether, 110 individuals participated in separate interviews, including 63 teachers, 12 principals, 13 presidents and school board members, 22 individual interviews with parents, rabbis and community members. As well, 242 individuals in focus groups, including 58 parents in 14 focus groups and 184 students in 30 focus groups. Approximately 1,332 students and 84 teachers were observed in classrooms.


Interviews and Focus Groups

Extensive semistructured, individual in-depth interviews as well as student and parent focus groups were conducted in all the centers. Interviews were audiotaped and later transcribed. The questions we asked were open ended, relating to overall issues such as what is a successful school, what is a successful Jewish school, what is a good Jewish Studies program, what is a good Jewish Studies teacher, and specific questions relating to the Hebrew language, Israel, and the Holocaust. The questions were adapted to the different roles and ages of our interviewees and focus groups, particularly for the student focus groups where students also completed a short, written questionnaire, including questions about their most powerful Jewish experience at school and what they saw as good graduate attributes.


The two principal researchers conducted classroom observations (50, each lesson of 30–40 minutes duration) in all 10 schools and semistructured field notes were taken.

Conclusions and Implications

Our research has shown that the macro factors in the sociolinguistic context have contributed to very different responses to HL education by the Jewish situational minorities in the different communities in the Asia Pacific region. Parents in the expatriate communities in the Asia Pacific region stressed the importance of Hebrew because of the various factors discussed above: first, the absence of friends and family, which increases the importance of identification with the Jewish community; second, the multilingual nature of Asian societies; and, third, the significant percentage of Israeli parents who are concerned that their children maintain their Hebrew language skills to avoid a disadvantage when they return to Israel. In New Zealand, the community’s immigrant nature, combined with the importance of including Maori culture in the curriculum, has also contributed to a more supportive approach among parents, while in Australia the fact that Jews are full citizens and highly integrated into Australian society has led to the HL having a much lower status (Benmamoun et al., 2013). This research supports Montrul’s argument that for different reasons, HL can be marginalized, as in Australia (Montrul, 2015), while in other areas it can be valued with a higher status, as in Asia.

This study has demonstrated a range from the most multilingual contexts in Asia to the least multilingual contexts in Australia. It has reinforced the findings of Oriyama (2012) of the importance of community contact, in addition to the other macro factors of speakers, status, media, and landscape within the sociolinguistic context, which impact on HL education. It is recommended that government planning to foster HL education needs to factor in ways of fostering these macro factors, rather than just focusing at the school level.


Benmamoun, E., 1, Montrul, S., 1, & Polinsky, M. (2013). Heritage languages and their speakers: Opportunities and challenges for linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics, 39(3–4), 129–181.

Montrul, S. (2015). The acquisition of heritage languages. Cambridge University Press. https://

Oriyama, K. (2012). What role can community contact play in heritage language literacy development? Japanese–English bilingual children in Sydney. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 33(2), 167–186.

Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. (1997). Grounded theory in practice. Sage.

Wiley, T. G., & Valdés, G. (2010). Editors’ introduction: Heritage language instruction in the United States: A time for renewal. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(4), iii–vii. 10.1080/15235882.2000.10162770

Updated: Dec. 15, 2020