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Spotlight on Heritage Languages

Spotlight on Heritage Languages

Heritage language learners in America -- people who grow up conversant, but not literate or fluent, in a foreign language --are a special group.

By Kathryn Paul

[The following article appeared as the spotlight piece on the front page of UCLA's main website beginning Monday, August 18, 2003. We reprint the full text below to keep it available after it moves off of UCLA's main page. It is archived on the UCLA's main website here.]

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America’s "heritage language learners"—people who grow up conversant, but not literate or fluent, in a foreign language—are a special group. With the right kind of instruction, they are considered most likely to succeed in developing a command of a foreign language at a level essential for professional transactions, international trade, and national security—invaluable skills for an increasingly global world.

At UCLA, heritage speakers enroll in courses in Armenian, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese, and of course Spanish. Physiological science major Linda Kim is a typical example. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Kim grew up in Southern California reciting Korean nursery rhymes and singing Korean songs. But she could hardly read or write in Korean, much less conduct an adult conversation in the language.

"I want to be a pediatrician to help my fellow Koreans, but I just don’t have enough of a grasp of the language," she admits.

So last fall, Kim enrolled in special Korean courses for heritage speakers in UCLA's East Asian Languages and Culture department.

"Because of their upbringing, heritage learners have the opportunity to achieve higher proficiency than other students," says Olga Kagan. "But bringing them up to speed is a challenge because their needs are unique." Kagan is a senior lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literature, director of UCLA’s Language Resource Center and a heritage language authority. Her book, Russian for Russians, is the first Russian heritage language textbook.

The UCLA Russian program offers two quarters of a class called Literacy in Russian. The class uses Kagan's textbook and aims at teaching literacy to heritage speakers who can speak Russian but cannot read and write at all—or need to improve their reading and writing skills. The Russian program also offers classes to more advanced speakers of Russian: Russian national identity, literature and film, business Russian.

When heritage language students are placed in courses alongside students with no
previous exposure to the language, the result can be frustrating for both groups, says Shoichi Iwasaki, director of South and South Asian Language and Cultures.

"Heritage students become bored with the slow pace and drop out," he notes, "while other students become intimidated."

The UCLA College has launched a series of initiatives aimed at helping heritage language learners. They include:

  • A computer program to teach literacy to heritage learners of Korean and Thai;
  • Principles for developing heritage language curricula for use with any language;
  • A program for heritage learners interested in developing a professional-level command of Korean;
  • The nation’s first heritage language scholarly journal, The Heritage Language Journal.

With courses for "English-plus" students in 10 languages, the College already lays claim to having the most heritage language "tracks" of any University of California campus.

UCLA is also home to two ongoing projects with heritage language components: Korean Language Development for Teachers and an On-Line Teacher Training Handbook. Korean Language Development is an outreach program for K-12 educators whose students often come from Korean-speaking homes; it's overseen by Sung-Ock Sohn of UCLA's Korean program. The On-Line Handbook is being developed by Honqyin Tao in the Chinese program and Georgiana Galatenau in the Slavic department, under a grant from the UC Consortium of Language Learning and Teaching.

As another measure of its prominence, the Language Resource Center convened a conference in 2002 to develop guidelines for heritage language instruction at the college level. The guidelines, which were adopted by the UC system, represent the first formal directives of their kind in higher education. The guidelines are available on-line at uccllt.ucdavis.edu/instructional_guidelines.cfm.

"UCLA is rapidly becoming the nation’s leader in heritage language," says Kagan.

The Language Resource Center is part of UCLA's International Institute, one of the major divisions of the UCLA College of Letters and Science.

Adapted from a story in UCLA Today by Meg Sullivan.

 

Language Resource Center