UCLA Course Teaches High School Students Language of Their Parents, Grandparents
VOA, Los Angeles,
Second- and third-generation immigrants tend to
lose the language and culture of their ancestors. The University of California
Los Angeles hosts
summer classes for high school students intended to break that pattern.
Heritage Language program director Olga Kagan says the youngsters are
regenerating cultural roots that assimilation almost severed.
"These kids are either first generation born here, or a few of them are 1.5
generation, which means they came here early."
Learning to speak of sophisticated topics
Graduate student Larisa Karkafi, born and raised in
Ukraine, leads Russian "heritage language" learners through a story about a
World War II orphanage. They laugh when a student misses the subtle difference
between the Russian words for "salted meat" and "elephant meat."
immigrant families become Americanized, younger generations often lose
touch with their family's language and culture
The Russian most of these southern California teens grew up speaking to their
parents was limited to matters of the home. They didn't talk about culture,
politics or more sophisticated topics.
The strain of the effort surfaces in 17-year-old Tomer Stepnov's voice as he
reads from a workbook. He describes himself as a proud Russian-American. His
family's home is filled with the Russian music his parents love and the aromas
of his mother's Russian cooking.
Taking this class serves a long-term goal.
"When I finish high school and go to college, I want to get an MBA, so I doubt
I'll be using it in my job, but I definitely want to teach my kids and carry on
A world of heritage languages
UCLA has offered these Russian classes for three summers. The university added a
Hindi course this year. Enrollment for this summer's Persian for Persians
classes more than doubled.
Michelle Nosratian says her parents stopped speaking to her in Farsi when she
started first grade because they feared language confusion would hamper her
progress in school. The 17-year-old vowed to take a Persian class a few months
ago, after an incident at the family dinner table, when she realized she
couldn't understand what her grandfather was saying.
"I kept asking him to repeat it," she recalls. "And after a while, I felt
embarrassed that I couldn't understand what he was saying. And he mumbled at the
end, in Persian, 'These kids are American; they're not Persian. They were born
here. They don't know their heritage, their language.'"
Nosratian and her classmates were born in the United States to parents who left
Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. UCLA estimates that about 70,000
Persians live in Los Angeles County.
Instructor Sheri Emami grew up in Iran. She's finishing graduate work at UCLA's
Middle Eastern language and culture department. She drills these students on
basic concepts and on present-day political turmoil in Iran.
"They're more proud of their culture, especially now with the stuff that is
going on," she says. "They all want to learn about what's going on in Iran right
Nosratian says these classes are opening up another world for her. She saw their
impact when she went to a rally in support of the Iranians protesting the recent
"Before I took this class, I couldn't read anything, didn't know what the
posters were saying. Afterwards, I saw everyone was wearing this T-shirt and I
could read it. It said, 'We're here. We're with you.'"
Government support for more bilingual Americans
The U.S. government wants to foster that kind of cultural epiphany. Students pay
$200 for the six-week language courses. But most of the support comes from
federal grants created after the September 11th terrorist attacks. They're part
of a wide-ranging government initiative to increase the number of American
citizens who are fully bilingual in less commonly taught languages.
The teachers also learn. Instructor Sheri Emami says that growing up in Iran,
she often heard that Iranian-Americans had abandoned their culture. After seven
years in this country, she realizes that's not true.
"I can't really say if someone has been raised here that they can't claim that
they're Iranian. It often happens that they're much more knowledgeable than a
lot of Iranians who are in Iran and they want to be Americanized."
The Persian phrase for Iranians who reject their culture is kharab zade. Emami
says the high school students in her summer language heritage classes are
helping to make that term obsolete.
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