LEILA ESMAEILI went from writing nothing at all in Persian — nil, she says — to writing full paragraphs in roughly the first half of a six-week UCLA course that ended last week. Like nearly all of her summer classmates from high schools around Greater Los Angeles, this 10th-grader at a Catholic school speaks Persian at home but has had little or no formal schooling in what educators call her "heritage language."
From the first day of class, the 12 students began learning Perso-Arabic script and matching characters with sounds that they had been making all their lives. They also learned to use formal tones and abstract terms not heard at home.
"I could write my last name," said Dara Afshar, another of the Persian-language students who was born and reared in the United States, of his Persian before taking the class.
All of the students report that they are now writing fluently. Some, particularly those who spent their early years in Iran, point to leaps they've made in academic vocabulary and to new confidence about speaking in formal settings. Progress like this is possible partly because the students are from Iranian American families and were already halfway there. But they can also credit the UCLA-led push to better understand and educate heritage language learners nationally.
The "Persian for Persian Speakers" course, created by the UCLA Center for World Languages with a $96,574 grant from the National Foreign Language Center, is based on a "Russian for Russian Speakers" course for high school students, now in its second summer on campus. (The seven Russian students enrolled this year report that they've gone from writing down driving directions to composing letters.)
High school students enrolled in the second Russian for Russian Speakers course at UCLA
UCLA's Center for World Languages has been a pioneer in heritage language education since the field's emergence. In 2006, in collaboration with the University of California Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching, the center established the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA with U.S. Education Department funds, to coordinate research in the field and apply it in classroom settings.
The UCLA center's Persian instructor, Shervin Emami, and the program's assistant director, Saeid Atoofi, are both UCLA doctoral students from Iran. Atoofi is writing his dissertation about the socialization through language of U.S. heritage language speakers of Persian in elementary school. He says the UCLA class for high school students involves important elements of socialization, such as how to express oneself at a job interview as opposed to a party.
To equip students for more formal settings, Emami focuses lessons on aspects of the language that students don't learn if they only speak it, such as the use of certain personal pronouns and word endings that may be omitted in speech. A gulf separates written and spoken expression in Persian, she says.
For the students, mastering Persian is important for more personal reasons.
"It's my first language, and I speak it every day in my household," said Sepandar Nasiriamini, who left Iran with his family at age 9.
"It's really my heritage," says Kiya Eshaghian. He likes to read Rumi and other Persian poets in their original language. "It loses its essence if it's translated into English," he said.