US: Heritage language programs growing

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 7 14:04:44 UTC 2007

May 7, 2007

Students Search for the Words to Go With Their Cultural Pride


CLOSTER, N.J.  Last summer, watching Al Jazeeras reports of the war in
Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, Fidele Harfouche was startled to
realize that in addition to understanding the Arabic spoken by the
anchors, she could, for the first time, read some of the words marching
across the bottom of the screen. Ms. Harfouche, 20, was born in Lebanon,
but moved to this verdant Bergen County borough of 9,000 people when she
was 6, before learning to read and write in Arabic, the language she and
her parents still speak at home. Her mother often tried to sit her down
for lessons, but Ms. Harfouche said she avoided them, feigning headaches
or claiming that she was too consumed with schoolwork. I wanted to fit in
so badly, she said. I figured if I practiced English, if I spoke English
well, Id be an American, like the other kids in my school.

But during her sophomore year at Drew University, a small liberal arts
college not far from here, Ms. Harfouche signed up for a class in classic
Arabic in a quest to become fully literate in her mother tongue. Its a
move that many immigrants who came to the United States as children and
those who were born here to immigrant parents have been making, said
language experts, who refer to such students as heritage speakers. As more
and larger immigration groups are represented in the United States, what
were seeing is sort of a renewed sense of ethnic pride taking hold among
the younger generations, said Kathleen E. Dillon, associate director of
the National Heritage Language Resource Center at the University of
California, Los Angeles. The U.C.L.A. center, with financing from the
United States Education Department, is conducting the first national count
of college programs geared toward heritage students, most of whom grew up
speaking a language other than English at home.

So far, 28 institutions have responded, from large state universities to
small private colleges in all regions of the country. In all, they
reported offering 54 foreign-language courses, including 28 specifically
for heritage speakers. The survey will continue for at least another two
years. According to a survey by the Modern Language Association of
America, which promotes the study of languages and literature, the
percentage of students enrolled in foreign-language courses fell, to 9
percent in 2002 from 11 percent in 1970, even as college enrollment nearly
doubled overall. But enrollment in certain languages exploded during that
period, mirroring immigration patterns, according to the survey.
Enrollment in Chinese classes, for example, grew to 34,000 students from
6,200. The number of students in Arabic classes grew to 11,000 from 1,300,
and enrollment in Korean courses jumped to 5,200 from 100.

The Modern Language Association survey did not count how many of those
students were heritage speakers. Researchers at U.C.L.A. and Portland
State University in Oregon estimate, however, that about half of the
college students in the United States who are taking classes in Korean,
Vietnamese, Hindi and Tagalog, one of the main languages spoken in the
Philippines, are heritage speakers. At Rutgers University, the South Asian
studies program began offering a two-semester Bengali course in 2004 in
response to requests from students of Indian and Bangladeshi descent. They
make up about 80 percent of the 17 students in the class this term,
officials said. At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, two
kinds of Russian classes have been offered over the past decade, one for
students who are new to the language and another for those who grew up
with it. The division reflects the growth in enrollment by immigrants from
Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

A lot of the students who come from Russian-speaking homes join the class
thinking theyre going to get an A, said Prof. Anna Geisherik, who teaches
the course for heritage speakers at Stony Brook. But then they find that
their Russian is not that good and that its pretty hard to learn to read
and write using an alphabet and grammar structure thats different than the
one theyre used to. Some of the students end up dropping out, Professor
Geisherik said. Twelve years ago, when Prof. Frances Yufen Lee began
teaching Mandarin at Cornell University to heritage speakers of Chinese
and Taiwanese descent, the course had one session per semester that
enrolled about 20 students.  Now, there are four to five sessions each
semester, with a total of 120 students and a waiting list.

We jokingly call it Chinese for illiterate people or Chinese for people
who cant read or write well, because thats essentially what it is, said Lu
Ning Yang, 20, who is in the second semester of the three-semester course.
Mr. Yang, who is ethnic Chinese, was born in Mongolia and learned a bit of
Mandarin in kindergarten before he moved to the United States in the early
1990s. He said he used to struggle to get past the headlines in Chinese
newspapers. Now, Mr. Yang said, he is able to write short compositions and
read magazine articles and letters from his Chinese relatives. This is
going to sound nationalistic, but as I grew older, I realized that as a
Chinese man, I needed to learn Chinese, Mr. Yang said. I guess this is
about reconnecting with a big part of who I am that I had neglected for a
long time.

Unlike courses for new learners, which are often conducted in English,
classes for heritage speakers typically are carried out in the language
being taught from the start. Students work on learning the alphabet, if
needed, and the rules of grammar while discussing politics and current
events. In many cases, they also improve their conversational skills by
rooting out the bad habits they have learned in an English-speaking
environment. Heritage speakers language skills vary widely, depending on
how much and how often they were exposed to the language growing up and on
the literacy level of the relatives who taught them to speak it.
Regardless, teachers say, they have inherent advantages over new learners:
correct pronunciation, a vast vocabulary and familiarity with phrase

Guadalupe Valds, a professor of education and Spanish at Stanford
University, said that in most cases, it takes heritage speakers just a few
semesters to reach a level of sophistication that beginners take years to
achieve.Vanessa Guevara, 18, a student in the Spanish for Heritage
Speakers class at Seton Hall University, said she was motivated to improve
her skills in the language she learned from her Peruvian-born parents
because she wants to be a diplomat. During a recent class, she struggled
to conjugate the pretrito pluscuamperfecto, or the past perfect, which is
used in formal conversations, to represent an action that began in the
past and ended in the past, before another past action. This is hard, Ms.
Guevara said, scratching her head with a pencil as she worked to fill in
the blanks on an exercise sheet. Im majoring in diplomacy, so I need to be
really good at it so I can say that Im fluent on my rsum.

Roman Zrazhevskiy, 21, who immigrated from Moscow to the Nassau County
hamlet of Woodmere at age 6, said he joined the Russian class at Stony
Brook, where he is a junior, because with all this talk of globalization,
it just seemed kind of stupid not to be able to read and write in this
language that I was pretty much born speaking. At Drew, where Ms.
Harfouche is pursuing a double major in political science and Middle East
studies, students of Arabic descent make up about a quarter of the
enrollment in Arabic classes, up from a handful a decade ago, said Prof.
Nora Colton. These individuals from Arabic background who join these
classes are speaking colloquial Arabic with their parents, so theyve still
got a steep learning curve, Professor Colton said. To them, though, the
classes are much more than just learning a language; theyre about
reclaiming their roots.

Ms. Harfouche said she grew up hearing her parents discuss works of Arabic
literature that she wished she could read, and she was often frustrated at
having to ask them to translate letters from cousins in Lebanon. Now a
junior, Ms. Harfouche has taken Arabic classes for three consecutive
semesters. It was really helpful, she said. I could learn the alphabet, I
could make up words and phrases, and my reading and writing got to reach
the level of, like, a first-grade Arabic student, even though I can speak
pretty well. This was very fulfilling, Ms. Harfouche said. It opened a
whole new world for me. The beauty of my culture, of my Arabic culture, is
in the writing, in the poetry, and knowing that I can rely on myself to
read it and understand is really amazing.


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