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Heritage speakers deepen language skills through classes

Billie Sun
Lindsay France/University Photography
Billie Sun ’19, right, a math and economics major, takes part in a Chinese heritage language class for students who already have some knowledge of the language but want to improve their reading, writing or vocabulary skills.

The 54 ancient and modern languages offered at Cornell – including Indonesian, Polish and Arabic – provide students with opportunities to stretch their skills beyond the typical European languages taught in most high schools.

For some students, the language they choose to study is one they already know well – perhaps speaking or hearing it since birth. These students are called heritage language learners, and there are classes in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Hindi and Russian offered just for them.

While these students know that the language skills may benefit them in a future career, many students also take the classes to connect with family.

Elsie Ikpot ’16 studied Spanish in high school, but when she learned she could take Yoruba at Cornell, she signed up in the second semester of her freshman year. Three semesters later, she earned a Fulbright fellowship to study in Nigeria.

“At first I was so afraid that I would make a mistake, but that experience made me feel confident and empowered,” she said. “I visited my grandmother [after learning more of the language], and she was so surprised.”

Frances Yufen Lee Mehta said teaching heritage speakers is something like filling in holes in a piece of Swiss cheese. All of the students have different strengths and weaknesses – in reading, writing, pronunciation, vocabulary or other areas – so classes need to address many facets of language learning, said Mehta, a senior lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies.

For Billie Sun ’19, her Chinese reading and writing skills are good since she took Chinese throughout high school, but her oral skills are lacking because although her parents spoke to her in Chinese growing up, she would always answer in English.

Frances Yufen Lee Mehta with student
Lindsay France/University Photography
Frances Yufen Lee Mehta, senior lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies, left, teaches a Chinese language class for students who already have some knowledge of the language. Benjamin Ho, right, a Cornell law student, is in her class this semester.

The classes have allowed her to connect with her extended family on many levels, she said. “I think a lot of my family’s humor is kind of Chinese-language-centric, so the language brings us all closer together in that respect.”

Kevin Alyono ’16 realized he had large vocabulary gaps when he tried to explain his environmental science major to his mother and other relatives.

“I moved from Jakarta when I was 7 years old, so I had a good grasp of the Indonesian language. But I slowly lost it because the only person I would talk to in Indonesian was my mom,” he said.

Attending a Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art exhibit and hearing the Gamelan Ensemble brought back memories of his childhood, Alyono said. Chris Miller, music professor and ensemble leader, encouraged Alyono to take his class, which led to a class in Indonesian, another class in Southeast Asian studies and intensive summer studies in Indonesia.

Writing and vocabulary are also the main challenges for students in Munther Younes’ Arabic classes.

“Many students have taken classes for religious purposes so they know a little about reading and speaking, but they have no grammar,” he said, adding that two of the eight students in his class this semester had never seen Arabic letters before.

The progress after one semester can be surprising, though, said Younes, a senior lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

“I can read most words and understand them now, and I can write small, simple passages,” said David Labib ’20, who was born in Egypt but immigrated to the U.S. when he was 10. “This is a huge stride from where I started, considering that in August I didn’t even know the letters of the alphabet.”

Along with heritage language classes, Cornell students can also practice their family language skills in Foreign Language Across the Curriculum (FLAC) classes. These one-credit classes are attached to a “parent” class in some discipline, where all discussion is in a foreign language.

One interesting conundrum students and faculty face in these classes is that although they all speak the same language, there can be vast differences in accents, pronunciations and word choice based on their native country or region.

“Faculty who teach heritage speakers must be respectful of the dialectal differences they will encounter,” said Nilsa B. Maldonado Mendez, visiting senior lecturer in the Department of Romance Studies, who teaches Spanish to heritage speakers. “After all, we’re talking about 20 nations, each with its own history and influences from regional indigenous people, different accents and even uses of certain verb tenses.”

Dick Feldman, director of Cornell’s Language Resource Center, said heritage speakers benefit from regular classes and FLAC experiences. “At the same time that their increased language skills help them relate more meaningfully to their families and communities, the more professional nature of those skills give them study and employment opportunities they never had before,” Feldman said.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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