Heritage versus Non-Heritage Learners: a Survey of Russian Language Instructors

Olga Kagan, Susan Bauckus, Greg Kamei, University of California, Los Angeles

The paper will discuss perceptions of Russian language instructors, most of whom teach in the United States, regarding the strengths and deficiencies of heritage (HL) and non-heritage (non-HL) students of Russian. We are using Guadalupe Valdes' definition of heritage language speakers as our working definition. The term "heritage " speaker is used to refer to a student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or merely understands the heritage language, and who is to some degree bilingual in English and the heritage language (Valdes, 2000). A survey, developed as part of a study funded by the National Flagship Language Initiative, asked college-level instructors to identify which linguistic, socio-linguistic, and cross-cultural knowledge is needed for students, currently rated as Advanced on the ACTFL scale in at least one area (Listening, Speaking, Reading, or Writing), to advance to Superior proficiency in all areas.

Thirty-nine surveys, containing multiple choice and open-ended questions, were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Instructors' ratings show that HL need less instruction than non-HL in the following areas: pronunciation, word stress, verb conjugation, use of verbs of motion, and use of aspect. HL have more difficulties than non-HL in code-switching, mixing vocabulary from incompatible registers and domains, use of borrowings from English, and use of inappropriate register.

Differences in the needs of HL and non-HL students were not statistically significant in the following areas: inconsistencies in intonation patterns, use of case endings and agreement, confusion of reflexive and non-reflexive verbal forms, limited vocabulary (as compared to that of educated Russians), and use of set phrases and idioms.

These results can inform curricular decisions, particularly the decision whether to separate the two groups or offer joint instruction for HL and non-HL students. We will present some preliminary discussion of the content, level, and focus of classes that would allow to enroll both HL and traditional students of Russian as a foreign language.