Learning a new language can be tricky for anyone, but heritage language learners can have some unique challenges. They grow up exposed to a language other than English at home, but are educated primarily in English. Because their exposure is home-based, they understand and may also speak their home language but may be illiterate because they have not had formal schooling in the language. Thankfully, a new online tool is available to help them get started.

The tool is a free series of alphabet tutorials for heritage language speakers, funded by STARTALK  and developed by the UCLA Center for World Languages (CWL) for its Summer High School Language Program. The tutorials are supported by pictures, audio and animation that shows how each character is written. The Arabic and Hindi series were launched last summer, while Persian and Urdu modules will premiere this summer. They are an extension of CWL’s summer language classes for heritage speakers.

“Students can teach themselves or work with parents and grandparents,” says Olga Kagan, director of CWL and the National Heritage Language Resource Center. “In addition, teachers can use them to supplement classroom instruction.”

“We saw that when students were entering the class, some knew how to read and write and others didn’t,” says Sumaya Bezrati, CWL program representative and an Arabic instructor who is entering her third summer teaching the high school program at UCLA. “It would sometimes take a week or two for them to learn the alphabet, which is a lot when you only have five weeks of class.”

Heritage learners receive a link to the tutorials when they register for the program. From there, they are encouraged to study the material in advance of the first day of class. Hindi instructor Anshu Jain introduced the tutorials to her heritage learners last summer.  She says that her students, including her son, who she describes as her “greatest skeptic,” enjoyed having these tools available to them because it allowed them to learn at their own pace. Jain believes that ease of use is essential because many young heritage learners don’t feel confident speaking, reading and writing their heritage languages. “They sometimes shy away from practice, which becomes their greatest barrier in helping them become fluent.”

Although available to anyone with a computer, a pair of speakers and an Internet connection, the tutorials are designed for heritage language speakers and assume some familiarity with the language.

Registration is now open for the five-week UCLA High School Summer Language Program, which features Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Hindi/Urdu, Persian and Russian instruction and runs June 26 to July 26. Classes are held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. All levels of heritage language students are invited to participate in these classes.