Research on HL bilingualism and implications for teaching: Focus on Russian

An interview with Russian professor Irina Dubinina of Brandeis University.

This podcast by Brandeis Professor Irina Dubinina summarizes key research findings on HL bilingualism, focusing in particular, on Russian, and considers implications for teaching and learning.


Carreira, Maria. (Producer). (2019, July 23). Research on HL bilingualism and implications for teaching: Focus on Russian [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

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[Maria] Hello everyone. This is Maria Carreira from the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA and this podcast focuses on Russian as a heritage language, but it's not just about Russian. It's also about, more generally, all the research, all the exciting research, that's being done on HL grammars in different languages and what all of this means in the classroom - that is, for instruction and curriculum design. So, we're going to get some useful tips in addition to catching up on all the theoretical advances that have been made recently. And to talk to us about all of this, we have Professor Irina Dubinina. Professor Dubinina, as many of you know, directs the Russian language program at Brandeis University and teaches all levels of Russia. So, she's somebody who knows the theory and the practice. She is, of course, an expert on heritage bilingualism and, as I mentioned, in this podcast she's going to use this background and her practice to tell us about what to do in the classroom, what do the latest findings from grammar research tell us about HL acquisition. And I should point out that Russia instructors are very lucky because they will soon have access to these insights in the way of a forthcoming textbook for HL learners, co-authored by Professor Dubinina. Congratulations Irina.

[Irina] Thank you.

[Maria] More on that later. I want to start this podcast by talking about another project that Irina is working on and that is a corpus of children acquiring Russian in monolingual and bilingual contexts. So, Irina. First of all, what is a corpus? Why is it important, and what are you learning from it?

[Irina] Well thank you for the introduction, Maria. It's a pleasure to be apart of this project. So, to answer the question about corpus... [pause] So, corpus is basically a huge online database of various language forms, words, as they're used in speech. The project is designed to compare the linguistic development of monolingual children growing up with Russian speaking parents, surrounded by Russian in Russia with children who are growing up in Russian speaking families outside of Russia which means that even if Russian is spoken in the home where the child is being raised, they language of the majority is, in one way or another, other present in the life of that children either because parents code switch or because the realities of life is such that the words from another language come into the home or the minute the child leaves the home, that second language is present. And so, these are children who come from Russia speaking families residing in Germany and in North America in the United States and Canada.

[Maria] And these are heritage language learners, then, of Russian, right?

[Irina] So, they're future heritage speakers, heritage learners. Right now, they are just bilingual children, I guess.

[Maria] I see.

[Irina] And we start when they are fairly young, at about three years old, and we hope that they will stay in the project... the families will stay in the project for some years, at least into the elementary years of school so that we can trace that development.

[Maria] And what are you learning, and why is it important?

[Irina] So, it's a little too early right now to tell you what we're learning because the purpose... the data collection is still taking place, the corpus is under construction. But one thing that we already found out is that bilingual parents in their speech directed at their children tend to use more pause fillers than monolingual Russian speaking parents in Russia.

[Maria] Can you give us an example of what you mean by that?

[Irina] So, an example would be: In Russian, the pause fillers would be "mm" or "eh."

[Maria] I see.

[Irina] And so, when people are looking for... [pause]. These are called, in general, disfluencies... speech disfluencies. I'm starting a sentence but I don't have the word at the tip of my tongue that I need. To fill in the pause while I'm searching for that word, I'm using a pause filler. So, something like "uh," that's what I'm talking about. (inaudible)

[Maria] Why is this important?

[Irina] So, why is this important? Why did we want to start the corpus in the first place? I say "we" because this is a corpus that I'm developing with my colleagues at Brandeis University and the major PI on the project is Professor Sophia Malamud, who teaches linguistics at Brandeis. It's important because we wanted to see how exactly children who start out as monolingual speakers in one language become early bilinguals very soon in their lives. How do the get from being monolingual, early bilingual speakers to being heritage bilinguals as adults? And that is a trajectory that is not entirely clear in current research.

[Maria] So, you're making... I hear you making a three-way distinction: monolingual, early bilingual, and heritage speaker. Can you address that?

[Irina] So, heritage speaker... [pause] Heritage bilingualism is a type of bilingualism that arises under certain conditions... social conditions, so to say. If often characterizes the life of immigrants or migrants. So, when families get transplanted from the normal socio-linguistic environment of one language... of one country to a different language... a different country, what often happens is their children - as well as the parents - become bilingual and the children become bilingual much faster than their parents because they're children. And when they grow up in the situation where their only speakers of one of their native language are their parents and maybe a couple of grandparents, then they're receiving unequal input in that native language in comparison to the input... the language that they hear... the language that is spoken in the majority of the society. So, in the case of Russian, English, for example... [pause] If parents, are Russian speaking and they're raising their child in Russian inside their home, the minute the family leaves their house, everything in the world around the child happens in English - playground, stores, post office, just walking down the street... all of that is in English. And then, on top of everything, when the children starts schooling or even in some cases day care in the language of the majority, they get more and more language... they get more and more English language and less and less of Russian language. As a result, when they become adults, their bilingualism is... [pause] I'm going to use a non-technical term - lopsided. So, their native language - what started out as their native language - becomes their weaker language. They're much more comfortable expressing themselves in the language of the majority even if they understand their first language still. To a pretty significant extent, they're much more comfortable expressing themselves in the language of the majority. And that type of bilingualism is unusual and we call is heritage bilingualism. Now, just to address the question of children... [pause] So, children are still developing. Whether it's their only language or two languages, they're still developing so it's too early to call them heritage learners, heritage speakers, heritage bilinguals. They're... [pause] At the age of five, if they have two languages in their system they're just bilinguals. But with time, as I explained with the significant role of school, the language of the majority of the society will become their dominant language and they will turn into heritage bilinguals. Well, bilinguals... (inaudible). They will eventually end up being heritage bilinguals.

[Maria] So, in terms of the linguistic knowledge, let me first focus on grammatical knowledge. What are the consequences of this reduction in input that they experience as a result of the situation in which they grow up? What are the topics of grammar that remain, if not inaccessible, difficult for them to master.

[Irina] And we're talking specifically about Russian, correct?

[Maria] Yes. Let's start with Russian or you can start generally if you want and then move to Russian or go the other way... whatever you prefer.

[Irina] So, generally we can just... these very crude brush strokes, so to speak. In terms of lexical repertoire, heritage bilinguals tend to be very good with vocabulary that has to do with home environment and informal situations... so, anything that has to do with cooking, and house, and family members and maybe some interests. And we're talking about stereotypical heritage speaker. They will not know... well, usually they're not very good with vocabulary that is required for them to discuss politics, or questions of philosophy... literature, et cetera. And if I can use an example in English, imagine an adult male - let's say 25 years old - who comes to a doctor and says that his tummy hurt.

[Maria] Right.

[Irina] So, that would be a good example... lots of diminutives, and not knowing that diminutives cannot be used in all social situations. So, that's one thing. Another thing is register... problems with register. So, in general heritage speakers do not always understand even that there is a formal register existing and if they do know or guess that such a register exists, they are not usually able to function in the formal register because their experiences have not been connected to formal register... something associated with academic life, for example... speaking on academic topics. In the areas of grammar, and syntax and morphology, there is an overall reduction of repertoire of linguistic forms. So, if a language has free word order, heritage learners do not have full repertoire of all the possible different word orders in the language and that's something, now getting down to Russian, one of the problems for Russian heritage speakers. So, they tend to stick to subject-verb-object order and in Russian, word order is free. And I'm saying it with such concession that free, but dependent on information... packaging. It depends on what I want to highlight, what I want to bring to the forefront but still, it's a free-word order. I can do anything that I want with words in a Russian sentence.

[Maria] And let me use an example from English, and let me know if this is appropriate. So, we can say, "I haven't talked to John yet" or you might want to say, "As for John, I haven't talked to him yet" and in the second example, you would switch the order in order to highlight... to put the focus on John. Is that correct?

[Irina] That's something similar... that's something similar. If you can imagine that English could say... this is the example I give to students: "Misha loves Masha," two beautiful Russian names. So, how do I know that Misha is the one who does the loving and Masha is the one who is being loved? Because of the word order. So, in Russian they can say "Misha Masha loves" and it will still make sense, and then we're getting into a different subject because there's going to be a particular case for Russian direct object. But because Russian has cases, it also has free word order. So, I can put the words "Misha," "loves," and "Masha" in any order that I want in the sentence and it will still mean that same thing - that Misha is the one who does the loving and Masha is the one who receives the loving.

[Maria] I see, but their must be different uses of the different word orders... or are they identical?

[Irina] Oh no, no, no. Absolutely. So, it does have to do with information structure... with what I want to highlight... with what I want to stress. It also has to do with what is perceived as old information versus new information to my speakers. So, yes. Changing word order to noncanonical has consequences but it's possible in Russian while it is not possible, really, in English except for the example, maybe, that you brought out.

[Maria] Right.

[Irina] So, there's a reduction of... [pause] Going back to what happens... what kind of happens... what characterizes heritage bilingualism... there's a reduction of repertoire of linguistic forms. It concerns word order, it concerns forms that require suffocates or endings. These are (inaudible) salient forms that are not clearly heard in oral speech because there is usually heritage bilinguals usually also characterized by a lack of literacy in the whole language... in what used to be the first language of bilingual children. It also has to do with a reduction in gender system if a language has a gender system.. [pause] Some reduction of tense and aspect, because tense and aspect are connected. So, there's an overall reduction of these grammatical forms that express meaning in the monolingual variety and the big question is: Does it happen because there is the influence of the stronger language on the weaker language or because the forms were not acquired in the first place and therefore, they are not in the linguistic system of our heritage bilinguals? Or, if they were acquired and then lost. So, these are the possible explanations for why heritage speakers have these reduced repertoires of linguistic means to express themselves.

[Maria] So, then the question that comes up is: What do you do with all this information in the classroom? How do you translate it into action?

[Irina] That is a very good question and I want to emphasize that for anybody who teaches a heritage language - Russian or any other - it is very important to understand - hopefully there's research on the topic - to understand what are exactly the areas of weakness, the lacunas, in the language of heritage speakers, with whom we're working. So, for Russians specifically, I can identify maybe three greatest challenges for us as teachers based on what we know about the reduced repertoire of linguistic means. We have to address the question of literacy. We have to address the question of gender and gender morphology, in particular, which is then connected to the case system in Russian. And then, I would say the greatest challenge is so-called "calc" translations from English - constructions that are not possible in Russian and what heritage speakers are doing... they're just translating word-for-word English constructions, which either it doesn't make sense in Russian or creates unintended humorous consequences.

[Maria] Can you give an example in Russian?

[Irina] I can give an example, yes, in comparison to English. So, the "to take" in English - the verb "to take" - is a light verb, so you could say, "to take medicine," "to take a bus," "to take an exam." What Russian heritage speakers do is that they use the Russian verb [Russian, "to take"] in the same way as if it's a light verb, and then they'll say, [Russian, "to take the bus"] and [Russian, "to take an exam"] and what it literally means in Russian is that you "pick up the bus" or you "take the exam into your hands" and so, my natural question is: And what happened next? You took the exam, then what?

[Maria] Right. [laughing]

[Irina] Or, you know, take a shower, take medicine is another thing. Okay you picked up the pill, then what? Why do you focus so much on that action?

[Maria] I see what you're saying. [laughing] What I hear you saying is that heritage language teachers need to be aware of key areas in linguistic knowledge and they want to target those, as opposed to trying to cover everything like we typically do with second language learners, right, where start from the beginning and you systematically move through the textbook trying to cover just about everything.

[Irina] Yup.

[Maria] And then in terms of how to cover it, is there a difference? Do you want to do something different with L2 learners or with HL learners? Can you give us some tips about what to do in the classroom?

[Irina] Yes, yes. You're absolutely right on all of those points. So, the problem is that when we heritage speakers in our classrooms, we often get them for even a shorter period of time then L2 learners and we need to, I call it, "pick out battles." There are a lot of problems with their language, but we cannot address all of them in one semester or even two semesters. So, that's why for Russian I chose literacy - because it's connected to speaking, gender-case system, and then these "calc" translations. Specific tips: It's important to teach literacy because in Russian... well, because we want them to be literate in the language, that's one of the reason why many people study foreign languages, in this case heritage language, but it's also because there's a connection between how words are written in Russia and their grammatical characteristics... or the other way around rather: grammatical characteristics and how they're written. So, for example, in Russian unstressed "o" is always pronounced as "ah." Our heritage speakers know that this word is pronounced as "ah." For example [Russian], which means "tree." So, it ends in an "ah" and therefore this reduced linguistic system of heritage speakers interprets the word [Russian, "tree"] as a feminine noun because it ends in "ah" and feminine nouns - most feminine nouns - in Russian end in "ah," while in reality [Russian, "tree"] is spelled with an "o," it's just unstressed. It's unstressed "o" and it sounds like "ah" in pronunciation. So, the written form of the word preserves its grammatic gender - its neuter gender. Because of the reduced input, because of the resulting reduced linguistic system, heritage speakers reanalyze the three-part gender system of Russian - grammatical gender system - into a two-part grammatical system. So, they differentiate between masculine and feminine, and basically everything that ends in a vowel becomes feminine for them and everything that ends in a consonant becomes masculine for them. And very rarely, they will have the neuter gender - only in those words where stress actually falls on "o," and then it's clearly heard this "o" is in the word [Russian, "milk"] and they will interpret it as neuter. So, so that spelling is important because it connects to the morphological system of Russian.

[Maria] So, let me see if I understand what you're saying. What you're telling us to do is to use literacy - reading and writing - to expose them to a wider range of grammatical forms and uses. Is that correct?

[Irina] Including that, correct, including that. But also to teach them to write things correctly. So, they can say these words but can they write them correctly? And in order to write them correctly, they need to know what their grammatical characteristics are.

[Maria] And I'm glad you brought up the issue of "correctly," because accuracy is always a big issue for language teachers. How important is accuracy when teaching heritage language learners? Can you address those issues?

[Irina] Correct. So, it is certainly important, however, going again back to the idea that we only have them for, let's say, a semester, maybe two... we cannot cover everything that they missed growing up without literacy in Russian in only one or two semesters. So, my tip... practical tip is that spelling - spelling specifically - is an ongoing battle and we can only... [pause] It's like this elephant that we have to eat. The only way to eat that elephant is one piece at a time - one foot in front of the other. So, you start with the most important differentiations like the unstressed "o," which sounds "ah," versus the actual "ah." We start with voiced and voiceless consonants because that, again, affects the form of the word. But if students... if there's other mistakes that students make because certain words are spelled differently - not the way they are pronounced. Even though Russian is a much phonetical language - the alphabet is much more phonetic than English, for example - there are still words that are spelled differently. If it doesn't really affect the form of the word, these are mistakes that I... I certainly talk about them, I mention them, we practice them but I do not spend a lot of time on them because they will come with practice. So, I pick and chose my battles here and spelling is an ongoing battle.

[Maria] So, you're telling teachers to prioritize what they're teaching and prioritize in terms of what they're going to correct and expect from students.

[Irina] Absolutely. And when grading homework or whatever work students do, there are always forgivable and unforgivable mistakes - that's what we grade on. So, an unforgivable mistake is something that we have been focusing on, it has been in focused instruction, that's what we've been talking about and I get a homework where the student obviously is not paying attention... did not get the explanations that we did in class. There are other mistakes that they may not possibly know that this is how it's spelled, or just it's just not in focus in focused instruction. So, the parallel that I can draw here is that when we teach L2 students, there are tasks... there are oral tasks that we give them and we don't listen for every single grammatical mistake that they make when we give them a global oral task performing some kind of communicative function. We'll look at the whole function - how well they function. This is something similar in terms of what you want to focus on. You cannot pick every single mistake they make because they will make mistakes and they will make a lot of mistakes. One piece at a time - that's the only way to eat the elephant.

[Maria] Very good. And as we are approaching the end of our podcast, I, of course, don't want to end without first asking you to tell us about your forthcoming book.

[Irina] The textbook for heritage speakers?

[Maria] Yes.

[Irina] We're expecting it to come out in June 2019, hopefully, if nothing is delayed that's on schedule. And this is a textbook that is... [pause] I co-authored it with my colleague Olesya Kisselev, who is now at the University of Texas at San Antonio and it's designed adult heritage learners of Russian, meaning they're college, university-level students or high schoolers, not children. And it addressed the needs of generation, really... not even generation 1.5 but generation 2. So, these are children of Russian speaking immigrants who were born in the United States, have not been to Russian speaking countries, received their entire education in the English language, may or may not know Cyrillic letters and who, if they were tested by an OPI tester, probably would place in the Intermediate-Mediate range in terms of speaking, perhaps Advanced in terms of listening comprehension and Zero or Novice, in terms of reading and writing. And what the textbook does, again, it goes through... (inaudible) We pick our battles in the textbook as well so this is an introductory textbook for heritage speakers and we go through this system of connecting sounds to letters, looking at morphological characteristics of words, understanding gender morphology as a category, basing cases - Russian cases - on gender morphology... also dealing with verbs - conjugation of verbs, past tense forms, et cetera. But the biggest attention is given to gender assignment and cases because that seems to be - for Russian heritage speakers, in particular - that seems to be... [pause] If I were to pick one area, that is the biggest problem, I would pick that. And that's what we did in the textbook - we picked that as the biggest area.

[Maria] It sounds like you're practicing what you're preaching, which is that you're prioritizing key areas of grammar and focusing on that.

[Irina] And yes... and based on what research tells us. So, yes, of course, we know that Russian heritage speakers also have problems with verbs of motion - Russian verbs of motion - and they have problem with aspect, but those are kind of higher-level problems. The more basic morphological problem for Russian heritage speakers, as research suggests, is the gendered case system and that's what we focus on. That's exactly why we focused on it - because that's what research suggests to us.

[Maria] Wonderful. And how can our listeners find your book?

[Irina] So, it's Georgetown University Press. I know that exam copies - I'm not sure what they are called - trial copies, can already be ordered so, anybody interested can search Georgetown University Press or send me an email and I will connect them with the publisher.

[Maria] Wonderful. Well, then this brings us to the end of our podcast. Thank you so much Irina for helping us understand this very complex and important issue - the issue of linguistic knowledge of heritage language learners and what to do about it in the classroom. We are most grateful.

[Irina] It is my pleasure, Maria.

[Maria] Goodbye.

[Irina] Goodbye.

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Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2019