Teaching the Russian Heritage Learner: Just What Are the Most Important Problems?

In a previous paper on the Russian heritage learner, I reviewed the pedagogical implications of linguistic research on American-immigrant Russian from both a sociolinguistic and cognitive-semantic perspective. In that work I treated several specific topics: 1) lexical innovations resulting from language contact with English and their social implications; 2) American intonational interference in emigre Russian; 3) phonetic differences between borrowings in the emigre and standard languages; 4) the restructuring of semantic categories as a result of American cultural influences. Most heritage learners are completely unaware of these factors and the extent to which their Russian, and even that of their parents, may differ from the standard language. In response to this piece, I have been challenged on the pertinence of all these issues. It was suggested that the two major difficulties in teaching heritage learners are Cyrillic illiteracy and inaccuracy in case usage, not the points I had outlined. It was further suggested that intonational anomalies in emigre speech are perhaps not the result of American influence, and that the entire discussion may be inappropriate for broader cultural reasons too complex to detail in this short abstract.

In the current paper I intend to weigh and explore just what are the most important issues and problems in the teaching of the Russian heritage learner. While I certainly do not discount the necessity of mastering Cyrillic and the case system, I will demonstrate why the factors above deserve at least equal attention and explain why they are more likely to be overlooked in the classroom. In addition, I will argue that case inaccuracy is also the result of category restructuring, analogous to the semantic reconfigurations I described in point 4 above. I will also address the importance of the intonational issue and attempt to defuse any potential misunderstandings surrounding it. Finally, in the first paper I also argued that the Slavic linguistics establishment as a whole is less interested in the problem of the heritage learner, because it seems more an “applied” rather than “theoretical” question. I was also challenged on this statement, and while I admit that my remarks were overstated, I still believe that they are true to some degree. In these days of declining enrollments nationwide, a growing percentage of our students may well consist of heritage learners. It is therefore important that their particular needs be identified and addressed, and Slavic linguists can and should play a vital role in this process.