By the time Kagan wrote “Russian for Russians: A Textbook for Heritage Speakers” (with Tatiana Akishina and Richard Robin; Slavica, 2003), she had already co-authored three textbooks for non-heritage speakers. She has since published four additional co-authored textbooks for the latter group, and three more for heritage speakers (two of them for high school students).
Her most recent titles in the two categories are “Russian: From Intermediate to Advanced” (with Anna Kudyma and Frank Miller; Routledge, 2014) and “Writing in Russian for Russian Heritage Speakers” (with Anna Kudyma; Zlatoust/St. Petersburg, 2011). The latter text was specifically created for Russian heritage speakers born in the United States who, says Kagan, have a weaker foundation in Russian and need a different curriculum.
I love writing textbooks probably more than anything else I do,” remarks Kagan. “In a funny twist, my grandmother wrote German textbooks in Moscow in the 1950s–1960s, and her textbooks were very well known. So I may have it in my blood.”
She enjoys writing texts for different types of students, as well as the collaboration involved. “That’s what I enjoy most — the intellectual challenge of ‘sparring’ with my co-author(s) and finding a mutually acceptable solution,” she says.
Heritage language learning requires a different pedagogy
The UCLA Russian-language professor first became interested in heritage language teaching at the end of the 1990s, when more and more students began to turn up in her classroom who, she explains, “either went to school in Russia for a few years or came as young children and could speak some Russian, but were not literate.
“I could see that these students needed a different curriculum, one that took their background knowledge into account. Otherwise they would either be bored in class and not progress, or they would dominate the class and not allow beginners to learn.”
Kagan points out that “languages are always bundled with cultures, and each culture is different, which [is part of the reason] why speakers of heritage languages want to maintain and/or improve their home language.”
In fact, a 2007–09 survey conducted by the NHLRC revealed that most heritage language learners wanted to learn more about their cultural and linguistic roots, as well as to better communicate with relatives in the United States who didn’t speak English well.
The NHLRC allows Kagan to bring colleagues together from across the country and the world to collaborate on improving heritage language teaching and learning, as well as to discuss the latest research in the field. Attendees at the center’s conferences and workshops include researchers, as well as language teachers who work in high schools, community language schools and universities.
NHLRC co-directors and participants at the "Second NHLRC Conference on Heritage/ Community Languages.
From left: Maria Carreira, Diego Pascual y Cabo, Genevieve Leung, Netta Avinieri, Maria Polinsky, and Olga Kagan. (Photo: Erin Orias.)
Despite the variety of languages involved — NHLRC meetings constitute a virtual United Nations of linguists and language teachers — Kagan says the issues are much the same across heritage languages. Those similarities have enabled heritage teachers to develop common pedagogical approaches.
Read Professor Kagan's Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times advocating the teaching of heritage languages in our public schools.
Kagan has repeatedly argued that teaching heritage languages promotes bilingualism in the United States (a famously monolingual country), helping its students to become more competitive in today’s global economy.
In an era of mass migration that is transforming major metropolises worldwide, bringing heritage speakers to proficiency in their “home” language also promotes academic achievement in general. Studies of children in bilingual dual immersion programs in the United States, for example, show that they have higher academic achievement over time than their peers.
Finally, heritage language speakers are a natural source of workers proficient in less-commonly-taught languages. Those languages are deemed critical by the U.S. federal government, but are typically not taught in American high schools or even universities.
Despite the rapid development of heritage language research and pedagogy over the last 15 years, Kagan says educational systems have been slow to adapt. “I’d been hoping for more changes by now,” she remarks.
“Heritage language education has become a new field of research,” she says, “but more needs to be done: more textbooks in all heritage languages, more curricular changes.” Still, she is the first person to admit that teaching heritage language speakers is a continuous work in progress, as immigrant generations change and new immigrants arrive.
“I feel I’ve been really fortunate in being able to do what I enjoy doing throughout my career,” reflects Kagan, “I don’t think there was anything I didn’t enjoy. . . [except] maybe some committee meetings!”
Never one to rest on her laurels, she already has new research and pedagogical ideas and is planning to write another Russian textbook, one that is content based and focused on art.
And then there is the volume of articles on heritage language teaching worldwide that she is co-editing with NHLRC colleagues Maria Carreira and Claire Chik. If you find yourself a bit dizzy trying to follow her vortex of activity, you are not alone!