UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Heritage Classes Aim for Preservation
High school students in the second Russian for Russian Speakers summer course at UCLA

Heritage Classes Aim for Preservation

The National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA has created summer courses to help high school students in Russian and Persian.

So we get a lot of children who have this wonderful knowledge from home of another language, and they come to school but the teaching methodology is not right for them.


[note: A heritage language is a language spoken fluently at home by someone who has little or no formal schooling in the language and therefore may have trouble reading and writing. ]

This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.

By Carolyn McGough, Bruin reporter

SUMMER SESSIONS at UCLA bring a wide range of faces and ages to the university campus, including some high school students who wish to study and learn about their heritage.

UCLA hosted two six-week "heritage language" programs – Russian and Persian – both of which ended last week.

The programs invited high school students to the university to study their "heritage language."

Heritage language is the language spoken fluently at home by someone who has little or no formal schooling in the language and therefore may have trouble reading and writing the language, said Olga Kagan, director of the UCLA Center for World Languages and the director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center.

Initially, a "Russian for Russian Speakers" course was created last year and was taught by Yelena Furman, a UCLA Russian language lecturer.

This year, Kagan and the center received funding to program a "Persian for Persian Speakers" course after a grant was received from the National Foreign Language Center, Kagan said.

The Persian language course is taught by Shervin Emami and Saeid Atoofi, both UCLA doctoral students from Iran.

The goal of the summer program is to encourage young United States immigrants to preserve and study their native language.

"Heritage learners or speakers of a language in addition to English have always been multiplying in this country, because it’s built on immigration and you come here with a different language if you immigrate," Kagan said.

Just because the primary language is English in the U.S., it does not mean languages should be forgotten, she said.

Kagan stressed the importance of programs that seek to preserve heritage languages, especially in light of the constant increases in immigration.

"The 1990 and 2000 censuses have shown huge increases of immigration in the past 15 to 16 years," she said.

"So we get a lot of children who have this wonderful knowledge from home of another language, and they come to school but the teaching methodology is not right for them."

Students who speak a language at home cannot be taught the same way a foreign language student is taught, Kagan said.

A foreign language course implies that the students are starting entirely from scratch, she said.

But a heritage language course assumes the student has some experience with the language and requires different teaching methods, Kagan said.

Especially in Los Angeles, a city home to a wide range of cultures, there is a great need for heritage language courses, she said.

Emami hopes for expansion of the language programs to accommodate and teach even more students and even more languages.

"The goal of our heritage language programs is to have multiple programs – programs like Persian, Arabic, Russian, Chinese because there are a lot of immigrants from these countries," Emami said.

"Second-generation immigrants are eager to learn their home country’s language."

UCLA is an epicenter of all different languages and cultures, in particular, and is therefore an ideal locale for such programs, she said.

If students are going to learn a language, it is helpful to begin at as young of an age as possible, Kagan said.

"We are beginning to move toward high school, because it’s important to start enforcing the language early," she said.

"Ideally, you would start learning the language as early as possible, so that while young students are using English in school they can also study their own language."

Emami said UCLA wishes to be forerunners of heritage language learning.

"I think UCLA’s goal is to get students familiar with the campus and college life prior to beginning college," she said. "And we want younger students to grow familiar with their language."

The UCLA heritage language programs seek to motivate young students in an environment that may encourage them to carry their studies past high school and to the undergraduate and graduate level, said Furman, who was born in Russia and immigrated to America with her family.

By the end of the programs, the majority of students are able to read and write, Emami said.

But despite the progress made in the program over the six-week, four-days-per-week sessions, an upbeat environment is maintained, she said.

"All the language classes have an element of game playing; people laugh a lot," Furman said. "You have to explain grammar and rules, but ultimately we’re enjoying ourselves as we preserve our heritage."