UCLA Today

An important part of staying connected to one’s homeland after immigrating to another nation is through language.

Current figures estimate that 20 percent of the population in the United States speaks a language other than English, which Professor Olga Kagan, director of the UCLA Center for World Languages, says is the highest percentage this country has witnessed in the past 100 years. “This isn’t to say that immigrants aren’t learning English,” says Kagan.  Rather, they are learning English while still speaking their heritage languages at home and doing their best to pass their languages onto their children.

Unfortunately, peer pressure and lack of interest on the part of their children can make these efforts challenging, says Kagan, who moved to the United States from Russia in 1975 and taught at UC Riverside for five years before joining UCLA in 1981.

“Typically, it’s only the second generation who can still speak the language,” she says of those who rode the wave of immigration during the 1970s. The health of heritage languages among the third generation, the grandchildren of immigrants — and even the children of more recent immigrants — is floundering.

Kagan is working to change this.

She says heritage language instruction is one of the most important topics in world language education today.

Heritage language learners are students whose parents’ or grandparents’ first language is one other than English. They are learners who may have some familiarity with their heritage language, perhaps speaking the language to some degree, but who are typically unable to read or write it.

“Most of these languages are not taught in the K-12 system. When these learners come to college, they may be reintroduced to their language and take a class, but this class may not be right for them.

“A typical first year or second-year level class will teach them what they already know, and they lose interest.”

Engaging these students and lighting a spark that will foster their interest is key if countries like the United States are to have strong numbers of people who can speak, read and write in a variety of languages.  Kagan believes heritage language students are a perfect fit to fill this need.  Key to their success is creating classes that fit their needs.

“If we know how to teach them, we can give them more.”

Together with Maria Carreira, a professor at California State University at Long Beach, Kagan recently completed a survey of 1,800 college-level heritage language learners, the largest of its kind to date, in an effort to develop more effective teaching tools and strategies for heritage language learners and help instructors develop strategies to attract more heritage learners.

The survey, which included heritage language students representing 22 languages, discovered that most students were either born in the United States or came as preschoolers. This finding is in stark contrast to studies conducted by other researchers 20 years ago that found that heritage language learners in the United States were often born abroad and educated in their home countries for a period of time before immigration.

“Typically, they speak their heritage language until the age of 5 or 6 exclusively or almost exclusively. When they go to school, they don’t feel as comfortable speaking their home language, and their English schooling and social interactions play a role in their loss, or, in some cases, rejection of their language.”

Saturday or community school may help them maintain their skills, but there’s no evidence that they learn their language at high levels, she adds.

Her interest in heritage language teaching began two decades ago when she taught Russian in the UCLA Slavic Languages and Literatures Department. At that time, she began to identify contrasts in the way heritage and non-heritage students were engaging with the material.  Educational materials need to be presented in a way that’s useful to them, says Kagan.

“If you can do that, you can be successful.”

As a pioneer in her field, Kagan has been credited with making UCLA a go-to resource for heritage-language researchers and teachers.  Not only has the center delivered on its mandate to support language instruction at UCLA through course development, faculty workshops and grant writing, it has also become home to the first and only National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC), a distinction the CWL has held since 2006, and one of just four Russian Flagship programs in the United States.  The latter is operated in co-operation with the UCLA Slavic department. Its goal is to graduate both non-heritage and heritage language students with high levels of proficiency in Russian.

This week she and her team at the CWL are welcoming about 80 linguists and educators to campus to participate in the six annual Heritage Language Research Institute, which supports the development of research for heritage language education. This year’s event, which runs June 18 to 22, will focus on linguistic research and methods of advancing heritage language instruction so that students can achieve high proficiency.

“One of the things that America is lacking is not people who have studied languages, because so many people have, but people who can read, write and speak the language at a high level of proficiency. That is what we are lacking. Heritage language learners are a natural source to fill this gap and they also provide a potential connection to their home countries, which is also of value to society.”

This research institute will be followed by a five week heritage language program for high school students that will help them advance their literacy and learn more about their cultures. “One thing is certain. You don’t understand the culture of another country unless you know the language.” Offerings include Arabic, Armenian, Hindi/Urdu, Persian and Russian. Enrollment is still open for these classes, which run June 25 to July 25.

“These programs show students and their parents that their language is valued,” says Kagan, adding that heritage language instruction is often difficult to find at the high school level.

Among the assignments are those that require students to interview their families using their heritage- language. She says these basic interviews often open up a dialogue between students and their parents and grandparents about their families and their histories that in some cases hadn’t been previously shared.

Heritage language instruction not only opens up opportunities, both personally and professionally, for heritage learners, but it also may encourage friends of heritage learners to also explore a new language, says Kagan, adding that the NHLRC is also offering a five-day teacher-training workshop for those who want to teach and promote heritage language instruction in their own departments, institutions, and districts. This workshop runs July 16 to 20 at UCLA.

“Americans have a reputation as being people who don’t know other languages, and there’s no reason for that," says Kagan."We have lots of heritage language speakers. If these people could speak their languages better, it may be encouraging to their peers who may gain interest in also learning the language.”