Lost in Between: The Case of Russian Heritage Speakers

Ludmila Isurin, Ohio State University and Tanya Ivanova, Ohio State University

The present paper is an attempt to look at the growing population of Russian heritage speakers and their place in Russian language classrooms from two perspectives: linguistic and pedagogical. From the linguistic point of view, the study intends to further identify the notion of heritage language by comparing the linguistic performance of heritage speakers with that of monolingual speakers as well as second language learners. From the pedagogical point of view, it suggests implications for the field of second language teaching. With the ever growing population of heritage speakers in the US universities, a foreign language classroom is no longer a place where a second language is a foreign language to all students.

Three groups of subjects participated in this study: heritage speakers of Russian (n=7), English speakers who are advanced learners of Russian (n=11), and a control group of monolingual Russian speakers (n=5). A background questionnaire was administered prior to the experiment and was aimed at gathering a language related information . The amount of exposure to L1/L2, the age at which the immigration to the US occurred, degree of literacy in Russian, and metalinguistic awareness were among the factors that were considered in the present study.

A controlled narration task aimed at eliciting speech samples was used in the experiment. Subjects were offered a children’s picture book and asked to tell a story based on the events chronologically depicted in the book. Subjects were interviewed individually, their performance was tape recorded and later transcribed and analyzed. In addition, samples of free writing assignments for the group of heritage speakers were analyzed.

The focus of the qualitative within-group analysis was to find those lexical, syntactic, and morphological features that characterize the linguistic performance of Russian heritage speakers. Then the across-group analysis attempted to shed light on the linguistic uniqueness of heritage speakers and their place in the continuum of language learners. If they are indeed lost in between, what are the implications for second language educators? The paper concludes by discussing implications for foreign language teaching relevant to the findings of the present study.