Attitudes and Motivation of Russian Heritage Learners

Anna Geisherik, State University of New York at Stony Brook

In recent years Many North American universities experienced a marked increase in the number of heritage speakers enrolled in Russian language classes. These learners have specific needs and goals that are entirely different from learners of Russian as a foreign language. Research of this growing population of language learners mostly focused on the linguistic features of language attrition in heritage speakers (Bermel and Kagan, 2000; Polinsky, 2000). However, such factors as heritage students' motivation and goals have not been fully addressed.

It is extremely important to understand the nature of student motivation because research shows that motivation plays a major part in students' choices of language learning strategies and the proficiency levels they achieve. However, language instructors often are not aware of the specific motivations of their students. This presentation focuses on research which deals with the issue of heritage speakers' attitudes toward learning Russian and their motivation in coming to the heritage language classroom. The work is based on the extensive research of the role of attitudes and motivation in second language acquisition by Gardner and Lambert (1972), Dornyei (1998), and others.

Current second language acquisition research discusses two types of attitudes labeled as an "integrative orientation" and an "instrumental" orientation. The distinction between integrative and instrumental motivation is that in the former, the learner wishes to learn a language in order to integrate into the culture and society of the language group, whereas in the latter learning of a language is motivated by the desire to achieve instrumental goals, such as academic achievement, and/or professional and economic advancement.

The goal of my research was to identify the motivations of Russian language learners and compare motivations of heritage vs. non-heritage learners. This was achieved using two questionnaires. The first one is a part of the placement test that we use in the heritage learner classes in order to determine the language level of our students before they start the class. For this study, I used forty placement tests with the question "Why do you want to study Russian?" The answers to this questions were examined and discussed. The second one was a formal questionnaire distributed among forty learners of Russian (23 heritage and 17 non-heritage students) in two colleges: SUNY at Stony Brook and University of Southern California. (This survey was based on a similar survey conducted by Noels & Clement [1989] among heritage learners of German, and the findings of my study are compared to those of Noels and Clement.)

The results of both surveys as well as their implications for classroom use and further research will be discussed in the presentation. The findings of this study might encourage Russian language instructors to reexamine how their own students' motivational factors affect their language development and what might be added or changed in their curriculum to better tend to students' needs.

Some works cited in my research include:

Dornyei, Z. (1998) "Motivation in second and foreign language teaching." Language Teaching, 31(3), 117–135.

Gardner, R. C. & Lambert, W. E. (1972) Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley: Newbury House.

Kagan, O. & Bermel N. (2000) "The Maintenance of Written Russian in Heritage Speakers." In: The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures Kagan & Rifkin (Ed.) Slavica: Bloomington, IN, pp. 405–37.

Noels, K. A. & Clement R. (1989) "Orientations to learning German: The effects of language heritage on second-language acquisition." Canadian Modern Language Review, 45(2), 245–57.

Oxford, R. & Shearin, J. (1994) "Language learning motivation: Expanding the theoretical framework." The Modern Language Journal, 78(1), 13–28.

Polinsky, M. (2000) "A Composite Linguistic Profile of a Speaker of Russian in the U.S." In: The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures Kagan & Rifkin (Ed.) Slavica: Bloomington, IN, pp. 437–67.