This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.

By Jennifer Gottesfeld, Daily Bruin contributor

Eighteen students sit in a classroom and chat as they await the arrival of their teacher Wednesday afternoon. But rather than speaking to each other in English, they are talking in Russian.

This is the scene of the heritage language classes on campus – classes which cater to students who are familiar with a certain language but never received proper language instruction.

Most students who take these foreign language classes learned the language at home, but never learned how to read or write it, said Olga Kagan, director of the UCLA National Heritage Language Resource Center.

"Students who come to language class who speak the language ... at home, usually speak well and understand it better than students who are just starting to learn it," Kagan said.

Over the summer, the UCLA Department of Education awarded the Center for World Languages at UCLA and the UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching a grant to establish the Language Resource Center.

The grant provides funding for the center from 2006 to 2010. The center has already begun to do research on different aspects of teaching heritage classes, but there is currently no established curriculum for teaching them.

UCLA was selected to house the center because of the multitude of languages represented on campus, Kagan said.

"We have been at the forefront for a few years because we are in California and we have so many people from all over the world and they want to maintain the languages," Kagan said.

The center will focus on creating a curriculum for heritage language classes as well as developing heritage language materials.

At UCLA there are few heritage language classes and one heritage language textbook, which is in Russian. The resource center plans to expand that number in the coming years, Kagan said.

Another aspect the center hopes to focus on is educating people about the importance of speaking several languages and the usefulness of nurturing heritage language speakers, said Robert Blake, director of the UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching and the codirector of NHLRC.

"We're hoping to raise some consciousness not only about the importance of taking advantage of heritage language speakers but also providing real theory and practice to schools in the nation who are interested in starting heritage language up in their normal curriculum," Blake said.

From what she has seen, students have appreciated the opportunity to study their heritage languages, said Mariya Gershkovich, a first-year political science student.

"This is a different type of class than your typical foreign language class, Gershkovich said. "(Heritage speakers) can't take a beginners' class, because we already know so much of it that it would be a waste of time."

The difference between a regular foreign language class and a heritage language class is the curriculum is based on the needs of the students, judging on how much knowledge of the language they are coming into the class with, Kagan said.

"In a regular foreign language class we take little pieces and gradually put them together. In a heritage language class you take what the students already know about, add to it and develop it," Kagan said.

In addition to the language basics, Kagan said it is important to cater to the students' family expectations.

"Students in heritage language classes have contact with the language outside of the classroom. They have contact in their communities and at home," Kagan said.

"We need to make sure that (what) is being taught in class is what family supports. In Russian, for example, we teach Russian literature and culture as well."