“Frog, Where Are You?”: Vocabulary Breadth in the Oral Discourse of Russian Heritage Speakers

Olga Kagan, UCLA

From a pedagogical point of view, of all the lacunae in the speech of heritage learners, lexical deficiencies may be the most difficult to identify and address. Identification is difficult in part because university programs compare heritage learners with students of Russian as a foreign language and, by comparison, heritage learners are perceived as having a fairly broad lexicon. However, while heritage learners typically can use ‘the home and hearth’ vocabulary in familiar interpersonal situations, they encounter difficulties when performing tasks outside of the familiar domain. To investigate the vocabulary breadth of heritage learners, the present study appeals to one such task, narration, which requires functioning in the interpretive and presentational domains. By analyzing the transcripts of the narratives, I expect to define the areas of lexicon to be addressed in the Russian heritage language curriculum and identify most appropriate approaches to vocabulary development.

The narratives were collected using the research apparatus of a well-known study by Berman and Slobin (1994), who investigated narrative in speakers of various ages and languages describing the “Frog” pictures. Using recorded narratives, the study analyzes use of vocabulary, namely 1) knowledge of ‘animal-related’ vocabulary, 2) choice of verbs, e.g. how well the verb describes the action in the picture, 3) variety of adjectives, 4) use of synonyms, and 5) stylistic appropriateness of vocabulary, including use of diminutives.

The heritage speakers of Russian in the study range from those who attended school in the former Soviet Union for 1-4 years to those who arrived at pre-school age or were born in this country. The results will be compared against the students’ biographical background such as age of arrival, use of language outside of class, etc.