Leaving one’s homeland for America doesn’t have to mean leaving one’s language behind as well. In the United States today, an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English. Their number, the largest in the past 100 years, holds promise for cultivating a diverse, multilingual American culture prepared to thrive in an increasingly global world — but only if the children and grandchildren of immigrants continue to learn and value their "heritage" languages.
Olga Kagan, director of UCLA's Center for World Languages, is credited with making UCLA a go-to resource for heritage language learners and teachers.
"Typically, it’s only the second generation who can still speak the language," said Olga Kagan, director of the UCLA Center for World Languages (CWL). At the same time that first-generation immigrants are doing their best to learn English when they arrive in this country, she noted, they also do their best to pass their native languages on to their children by speaking these languages at home. But it’s an uphill climb, with parents often meeting with lack of interest among their children, bolstered by peer pressure from their kids’ friends.
The floundering health of heritage languages among the third-generation grandchildren of those who rode the wave of immigration in the 1970s — as well as the children of more recent immigrants — is of huge concern to Kagan. She has made it her mission to work with heritage language learners — students who have some familiarity with their heritage language, perhaps speaking it but typically unable to read or write it.
Working these students is not as straightforward as it may seem, said Kagan, who moved to the United States from Russia in 1975, taught at UC Riverside for five years and joined UCLA in 1981. Shortly after her arrival in Westwood to teach Russian in the UCLA Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, Kagan began to notice that heritage language students engage differently with the class material than do students new to the language. Heritage language learners tend to lose interest, she said, because "a typical first-year or second-year level class will teach them what they already know." Educational materials, Kagan realized, need to be presented in a way that lights a spark to foster these students’ interest. "If we know how to teach them," Kagan said, "we can give them more."
As a pioneer in her field, Kagan has been credited with making UCLA a go-to resource for heritage-language researchers and teachers. The Center for World Languages, which she has led for the past decade, has delivered on its mandate to support language instruction at UCLA through course development, faculty workshops and grant writing. In 2006, the CWL become home to the first and only National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLR). And in collaboration with the UCLA Slavic Department, it is also one of only four Russian Flagship programs in the United States, with the goal of graduating both heritage-language and non-heritage students with high levels of proficiency in Russian.
Recently, Kagan and heritage language colleague Maria Carreira, a professor of Spanish at California State University Long Beach, completed a survey of 1,800 college-level heritage language learners representing 22 languages. The survey — the largest of its kind — found that most of these students were either born in the United States or came here as preschoolers.
"Typically, they speak their heritage language until the age of 5 or 6 exclusively or almost exclusively," said Kagan. "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."
To support further research for heritage-language education, Kagan and her team at the CWL are welcoming about 80 linguists and educators to campus this week to participate in the sixth annual Heritage Language Research Institute. The event, which runs June 18-22, will focus on linguistic research and methods of advancing heritage language instruction to enable students to achieve high proficiency.
"One of the things that America is lacking is not people who have studied languages, because so many people have," said Kagan, "but people who can read, write and speak a language at a high level of proficiency. 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."
Starting next week, the CWL is presenting a five-week heritage language program for high school students to will help them advance their literacy and learn more about their cultures. Offerings include Arabic, Armenian, Hindi/Urdu, Persia and Russian. Enrollment is still open for these classes, which run June 25-July 25. In one class assignment, students will interview their families in their heritage language. This process, Kagan said, often opens up a dialogue between students and their parents and grandparents, sharing information about their families and their histories that, in some cases, hadn’t been previously shared.
NHLRC is also offering a five-day teacher training workshop, July 16-20, for those who want to teach and promote heritage language instruction in their own departments and schools.
Effective heritage language instruction can also encourage others to explore a new language, said Kagan.
"Americans have a reputation as being people who don’t know other languages, and there’s no reason for that," said 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."
For more information, see the Center for World Languages website.