Originally from Moscow, Olga Kagan received an MA from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute and began her career teaching English as a foreign language. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1976, she taught Russian as a lecturer, first at UC Riverside and then at UCLA starting in 1981.

In 1997 while working full time, Olga earned a PhD from the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. In time she became a full professor, undergraduate advisor and director of language programs in the UCLA Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures, and director of the UCLA Center for World Languages, the Russian Flagship Center, and the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC), funded by the Department of Education’s Title VI. The NHLRC, her brainchild, was founded to offer effective approaches to teaching heritage language speakers by creating a research base and providing teacher education. Olga coauthored over 10 Russian-language textbooks, including the first written for heritage speakers of Russian, published many articles and book chapters in heritage language studies, and founded the Heritage Language Journal to publish research in heritage language studies.

She developed an interest in heritage language education after noticing an increasing number of Russian heritage speakers in UCLA Russian classes. These students were not thriving and at the same time were annoying their struggling classmates with what sounded like effortless fluency. While many instructors saw heritage speakers as disruptive and cynical, Olga looked more deeply and saw a fascinating human and pedagogical need and intriguing research questions. She often said, “If they come for an easy grade and that’s what we give them, it’s our fault, not theirs.” She designed a class for heritage speakers at UCLA (Russian for Literacy), which advances heritage speakers to high-level Russian coursework in one year by building on what students know rather than harping on their deficiencies. She trained the department’s graduate students to teach the class, giving them a valuable job skill.

Olga’s work with these students and her research, publications, conference presentations, and teacher education in heritage language studies made her a widely respected leader and pioneer in the field. She charted new ground with initiatives that brought together researchers from across language backgrounds and research areas, and brought together researchers and practitioners. Before her, the field was disparate and compartmentalized, and she changed that.

Olga won several awards for her work, two from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) for the Best Contribution to Pedagogy (in 2001 and 2004 for her books), another from AATSEEL for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and one for Distinguished Service to the Profession from the Modern Language Association in 2014.

She was a gifted teacher of foreign and heritage language students on all levels. She said, “I enjoy teaching because of its interactive nature. It’s fun anticipating students’ questions, but also to have to answer unanticipated questions. . . . Every class is different and you have to prepare anew every time and almost reinvent yourself when in class. That’s what I enjoy!” Olga’s work in heritage language studies was informed by her vision for language study for all students: that language can be a medium for discovering the world and oneself. That vision is also the guiding principle of UCLA Russian Flagship Center, funded by the Department of Defense and one of four in the U.S. that teach undergraduates to high levels of proficiency in Russian.

Her gifts for interaction were also evident in her genius for collaborating with many people simultaneously on multiple projects. While Olga didn’t get personal at work, she was always personable, calm, and restrained even when annoyed. She loved sharing ideas, designing projects and seeing them come to life, and mentoring students, officially and unofficially. Her generosity of spirit could be seen among other ways in her ability to find jobs for students, some of which she created herself (she was entrepreneurial too). She served on and chaired numerous dissertation committees and wrote thousands of letters of recommendation.

Olga’s sterling integrity of character could be seen in the integrity of her work. She was also intensely curious, immensely well-read and informed, and saw a staggering workload as a good time. She loved solving problems and was a true scholar in that she was fascinated and pleased to find unanticipated results. She practiced active goodness and was great fun to work with. We love her dearly.

 


*1. Heritage speakers are either born in the U.S. to immigrant parents or arrive at an early age, grow up in homes where a language other than English is spoken and, despite becoming English dominant once schooling starts, maintain a close cultural and affective connection to the home language and its associated culture.


 

Donations in Professor Kagan's memory can be made to the Olga Kagan Heritage Language Teaching Fund and to the two academic programs that she was most passionate about - the UCLA National Heritage Language Resource Center, which supports the teaching of heritage languages, and the Russian Flagship Program, which supports study-abroad opportunities for UCLA Russian Flagship students.