Select Techniques of Teaching Russian to Heritage Speakers

Julia Titus, Yale University

The political reforms in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have resulted in significant changes in the student body on American campus — across the country there is an increase of heritage speakers. Current foreign language instruction has to find ways to include these new learners into the curriculum. Because of the unique needs of heritage learners a new approach to the language instruction has to be worked out.

Since heritage speakers have minimal or no written skills but already have oral skills and often speak the language at home (although without appropriate case structure, with many constructions directly translated from English, and using English syntax structure), they can not follow the traditional language instruction where oral and written skills are developed simultaneously. Hence, the sequence of presenting material in the bilingual classroom has to be completely different from a traditional first-year Russian course. The pace of the course has to be adjusted as well since heritage learners already have a considerable vocabulary, are able to express themselves in Russian and are familiar with Russian declension system, although they often use incorrect cases (for example, substituting accusative for dative). At the same time, while the bilingual students have a relatively large vocabulary, they have no knowledge of registers of speech and no familiarity with different styles of discourse. Special attention should be paid to stylistics.

In my paper I would like to examine the differences and challenges in teaching Russian for Bilinguals class in comparison with a first-year Russian course based on my experience teaching both of these courses at my institution and share some of the techniques that I have developed to teach heritage speakers. Last year we have used a new textbook Russian for Bilinguals, and I would like to comment on how this first of its kind textbook meets the unique needs of heritage speakers.