Placing Heritage Speakers: A Comparison of Writing Samples of Heritage and Non-Heritage Learners

Olga Kagan, University of California, Los Angeles

The paper will analyze ten translations from English into Russian: five by heritage speakers of Russian after seven weeks of formal university level instruction, and five by non-heritage students in a fourth-year Russian class. As part of their homework, the students translated an excerpt from a novel (266 words).

The five heritage speakers were either born in this country or immigrated with their parents at a pre-school age. They had no formal instruction in Russian until the Fall of 2000. The translation assignment was given to them in the seventh week of the quarter. The five non-heritage students learned Russian in high school or college. Both groups can be considered native speakers of English. The following criteria for comparison were chosen: spelling mistakes, choice of vocabulary, errors in morphology and syntax, text pragmatics and sentence structure. All the translations can be roughly described as Intermediate according to the ACTFL scale.

As a final step, three native speakers of Russian have been asked to judge the translations. The "judges" did not see the texts. They were read to them by a native speaker of Russian (the same person read all the ten translations) to obliterate the mistakes in writing such as spelling errors and wrong case endings. The judges were asked to assign the following categories: definitely native/ hard to decide/definitely foreign.

The results underline the dichotomy typical of heritage speakers: while possessing the bulk of vocabulary and discourse pragmatics equal to or surpassing that of an average student with four years of college Russian, they need instruction in elementary grammar and spelling. If offered a program that takes this dichotomy into account, heritage students are capable of progressing from intermediate to advanced to superior levels of proficiency in all four modalities in a much shorter time than can be typically expected of their non-heritage counterparts. The conclusion underscores the necessity of formulating distinct goals for heritage instruction and also a need for new unorthodox materials.