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
All of the students report that they are now writing fluently. Some, particularly those who spent their early years in
The "Persian for Persian Speakers" course, created by the
UCLA's Center for World Languages has been a pioneer in the field of heritage language education since the field's emergence. In 2006, in collaboration with the
The UCLA center's Persian instructor, Shervin Emami, and the program's assistant director, Saeid Atoofi, are both UCLA doctoral students from
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 both languages. she said.
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
"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.