UCLA is helping to develop an invaluable American resource -- heritage language speakers. <i>UCLA Today</i> details the effort in several languages including Chinese and Korean with plans to offer such instruction in Thai and other South and Southeast Asian languages.
This article originally appeared in UCLA Today (December 10, 2002).
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Linda Kim grew up in Southern California reciting Korean nursery rhymes and singing Korean songs. But she can hardly read or write, much less conduct an adult conversation, in Korean.
“I want to be a pediatrician to help my fellow Koreans, but I just don’t have enough of a grasp of the language,” said the physiological science major.
So Kim enrolled this fall in special UCLA courses for the region’s growing ranks of “heritage language learners,” students who grow up conversant — but not literate or fluent — in a foreign language.
“Because of their upbringing, heritage learners have the opportunity to achieve higher proficiency than other students,” said Olga Kagan, director of UCLA’s Language Resource Center and a heritage language authority. “But bringing them up to speed is a challenge because their needs are unique.”
At stake is the fate of a group believed to stand the best chance in American culture of developing a command of a foreign language at a level required for international trade, professional transactions and national security.
“In the wake of Sept. 11, tapping the potential of these students is seen as increasingly important for American interests,” Kagan said.
But 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, said Shoichi Iwasaki, director of South and South Asian Language and Cultures.
“Heritage students become bored with the slow pace and drop out,” he noted, “while other students become intimidated.”
Finding solutions is especially critical in Los Angeles, where the 2000 Census found that 54% of residents speak a language other than English at home, said Russell Campbell, an emeritus professor of applied linguistics and a pioneer in the field.
“Given our demographics and national security concerns, we’d be missing a real opportunity if we didn’t take a leadership role in this area,” Campbell said.
Armed with more than $500,000 in new grants (and up to $400,000 more in the works), the College of Letters and Science has launched a series of initiatives aimed at helping students like Kim. They include:
A computer program to teach literacy to heritage learners in a range of languages;
A heritage language curriculum for use with any language;
An immersion program for heritage learners interested in developing a professional-level command of Korean;
Additional heritage language courses in several Asian languages;
The nation’s first heritage language scholarly 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: Languages of LA, a study that explores the region’s non-English speakers, and Korean Language Development for Teachers, an outreach program for K-12 educators whose students often come from Korean-speaking homes.
As another measure of prominence, the Language Resource Center convened a conference over the summer to develop guidelines for heritage language instruction at the college level. The guidelines, which were adopted last month by the UC system, will represent the first formal directives of their kind in higher education.
“UCLA is rapidly becoming the nation’s leader in heritage language,” said Kagan, a senior lecturer in Russian and author of the first Russian heritage language textbook.
Language Resource Center bibliography on Heritage Language Teaching
UCLA Korean Language Program Prof. Sung-ock Sohn, coordinator
Published: Tuesday, December 10, 2002
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