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UCLA Course Teaches High School Students Language of Their Parents, Grandparents

  • Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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."

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 the tradition."

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 now."

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 election results.

"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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