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What Is a Heritage Language, Olga Kagan?

What Is a Heritage Language, Olga Kagan?

The director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA (and of CWL) answers some frequently asked questions.

CWL: I'm here with Doctor Olga Kagan, Director of The UCLA Center for World Languages and Director of the National Heritage Language Resource center. So Olga, can you tell me who is a heritage speaker and how did we get this term?

OK: A heritage speaker is someone who grows up with a certain family language in the home which is different from the dominant language in the country. So in this case for this country, the dominant language is English. So if someone grows up in a family where Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Polish, is spoken, then that person would be a heritage speaker of that language. I recently co-authored a paper where we talked about a heritage speaker in a broad definition and a heritage speaker in a narrow definition. And that is the question that always comes up, someone would say oh, my grandparents were Italian does it mean I'm a heritage speaker of Italian? It depends.

To me it depends on whether you know some Italian or not. To some other people like, Joshua Fishman for example, he would say yes this is a heritage speaker of Italian. But this would be a motivational heritage-ness so to say, not the proficiency. So you can talk about a heritage speaker in a broad sense, a broad definition. Which means I have some affinity with the language which stems from my family background. So I'm emotionally attached to the language and I want to learn it. The narrow definition is a speaker who actually has some proficiency. Which means the language is spoken in the home, which means the speaker has participated or listened or heard a lot of this language. So to me the group of students I'm mostly concerned with are these heritage speakers who fit into my narrow definition. They have certain proficiency in the language and that proficiency varies depending on their home environment, how much language is spoken at home and many other issues. So when a student who continues to speak a home language comes to a foreign language class, we can clearly see the difference between that speaker and a foreign language learner.

The foreign language learner typically starts learning the language in the classroom. So the language is text book based, classroom based but also it is very limited, it takes a long time to learn a language well. So what happens when you put these two groups together you can see they are very different. Here is a heritage language learner who can speak the language fluently. I wouldn't define fluency here but you can hear them chatting in the language, whether there are mistakes or not it doesn't matter. You generally don't hear foreign language learners do that until a much later developed proficiency which would take years. So if you compare heritage language learners and foreign language learners we see considerable differences. That's why I'm advocating for special programs for heritage language learners. They shouldn't be put together with foreign language learners in the same class because I believe that both groups suffer because their needs are so different.

CWL: Is it where to place them one of the big questions? Or how to teach to them?

OK: It's both. The big question is where to place them and people struggle with that. There are several schools of thought on that. One is that if they are illiterate you place them with beginning students because they need to learn how to read and write. It doesn't work that way because we are teaching our beginning students on how to read and right, true, but at the same time we also teach them how to speak and develop their listening comprehension. In comparison to these foreign language learners, heritage language learners have a very high level of listening comprehension, it's their strongest suit.

In the survey that I mentioned before, one of the questions was please self-evaluated your proficiency with speaking, reading, listening, and writing. It's very interesting to see that across the all languages and we have responses from about 18 languages, across the languages all the heritage language learners that we surveyed identified listening as their best ability. Many of them think that in listening they are close to native speakers. Very few of them think they are as good in speaking. There's a big drop, if you look at the graph, there is a huge drop between what they think of their listening ability and speaking ability, and writing is so low very few of them think they are like native speakers and reading is right next to writing. This is one school of thought, if they have no literacy, put them with beginning students. It doesn't work because everyone is uncomfortable. The beginning students would say immediately what are they doing here they can speak the language already?! And the heritage students would say, I'm bored or if they don't say I'm bored, they think, I'm bored.

There's another school of thought, put them in an advanced class because they can speak so well already. Other problems arise, first of all, in most cases they still speak better then some of the advanced students, but also they speak differently. They may not have this very soul-less language, this text-book based language that we unfortunately teach but that's what you do in basic course, you teach this language devoid of any emotion because beginning students cannot handle emotion, devoid of any negative comments. They can do all kinds of things, like use language we don't generally use in academia and class because they bring it from home. They use live language and our advanced students don't yet. That is a bit of a problem, also their listening as I said is much stronger that advanced students. But there is another problem, foreign language learners, what they're good at, they're good at is this understanding of grammar. They've been taught grammar, they've been taught the rules. They know what a conjugation is, what a tone is, what a declension is and they operate within those grammatical terms.

I taught Russian classes before where we had a mixed group in my 3rd or 4th year and half of the group would be heritage speakers. They could speak but they had no idea what the grammatical terminology was. They said what is that? Why'd you teach that? But they were very comfortable with just understanding and expressing themselves. Again, it didn't work. I tried to make it work by telling both groups they can benefit from each other. I've heard success stories of other instructors, who say oh yes, they benefit from each other, but I haven't been successful with that. I also don't think it's the right thing to do. It's like putting someone who is already in 10th grade back into the kindergarten because they forgot how to place something, they need to start again. I also think it’s not fair, sometimes people say it's not fair to the foreign language learners, because here we put them with students who are so much better. I don't think that's the point, I think both groups are our students and we need to offer the best instruction we can. So I think that's an important point, we need to realize that heritage language learners come to us basically, and there have been studies that shown it, at the intermediate level of proficiency. And sometimes more. My own studies show between intermediate and advanced illiterate heritage language learners in Russian and in many other languages. That's where we graduate students after four years of instruction. And if we really offer them a good program then I think in two or three years we can graduate people who will be truly proficient in the language, literate and also proficient in spoken language, not only at the home level but in other domains too. But we need to do it right. If we keep mixing them together with everyone else, they will learn something, there is no question about that, but the question is, how much they will learn, and are we doing the best with our own time? Are we doing the best with the students’ efforts? Or is it a disservice to them? I believe it is a disservice to them because we really need to find ways to teach them well.

CWL: Olga, thank you very much for taking this time to talk to us. We have one last question; can you tell us how many languages you speak?

OK: Well, that's a sad commentary I think on how I dealt with the languages I learned. At this point, I speak Russian which is my native language, and I speak English. At one time in my life, I spoke German, because my grandmother's first language was German and she taught me German when I was young and then I forgot it. At another time my minor was French and I was quite proficient in French but then I forgot that too. So I'm not a good example of someone who retains languages, I guess I got too concentrated on English and Russian.


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Published: Tuesday, June 3, 2008