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Learning with Experienced Speakers, Non-Native Language Students Face Challenges

By Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: March 10, 2015, at 9:53 p.m.

Kirsi Anselmi-Stith ’18 hails from Rock Springs, Wyoming. But when she walks into her introductory Arabic class every day, she finds herself next to students with more experience speaking the language, which she says can create an unbalanced learning environment.

“I have definitely come into contact with people who should be on my same level of Arabic but are so much faster that it makes it harder for me to learn,” she said. “A lot of the students had read the Islamic texts already, so they could recall words that I didn’t know.”

Anselmi-Stith’s experience in Arabic is not unique. While several languages at Harvard offer separate tracks for students with prior experience in the language, others—such as Arabic and Hindi-Urdu—do not divide their pupils into different tracks, leaving some students struggling to catch up to more experienced peers sitting next to them.

Chinese—one of the languages with a separate track for heritage speakers—offers sections that proceed not only at a faster pace than the regular classes but also include a specifically designed curriculum to cater to those with prior experience, according to Jennifer Li-Chia Liu, director of the Chinese language program. Heritage learners have been exposed to a language growing up.

“For example, for one of the assignments for the beginning heritage class, the instructor asks students to listen to a recording, because they are really good at listening,” Liu said. “But once they listen to the story, they have to type or write it. You won’t be able to do this type of activity with regular students, because it would take much longer to bring them up to the level of fluency.”

Along with Chinese, Korean offers separate classes for heritage speakers, according to Liu, because these East Asian languages are considered the most difficult for English speakers to learn. These departments are discussing expanding heritage offerings still further, Liu said.

Yet Arabic—also a difficult language for English speakers—intentionally has no such option.

Given the disparity between the written and spoken languages, the Modern Standard Arabic taught in Harvard classrooms does not privilege native Arab speakers because of its differences with the spoken dialect, said William E. Granara, an Arabic professor of the practice.

“If you speak with your grandmother at home and use Arabic around the dinner table, that does not get you to write a sentence,” he said.

David Max Korzen, a graduate student enrolled in an a second-year Arabic course who studied Arabic as an undergraduate and spoke it while enlisted in the military overseas, agreed with Granara that the grammatical differences between local dialects and Modern Standard Arabic are significant. However, he acknowledged that his experiences conversing in Arabic in the Middle East may have made him more confident in his speaking skills than his peers.

“The other students in the class, they know a lot of the basic grammar far better than I do, but they just don’t like to speak,” he said. “They’re so focused on the grammar that they get sort of wrapped around the axle, and they are not comfortable making mistakes.”

Like Anselmi-Stith, Korzen recalled frustration with the rapid progress of experienced students in his undergraduate classes at George Washington University.

Some native speakers in his classes, he said, "had a lot of exposure to this language, and yet they were in introductory classes with me, so they had a leg up.”

While the College adminsters language placement exams, Granara said there have been cases when heritage speakers “slip through the cracks” and intentionally place into a lower-level course. However, he said, initial differences between experienced speakers and first-time Arabic students tend to level out in time.

“At the end of the day, some our best students are kids from Iowa, absolute beginners who do not have the vocabulary or some kind of the cultural underpinnings of the language,” he said. “Ultimately someone’s going to learn the language by discipline and motivation and study. Heritage learners take the class and think it’s going to be an easy A, and it isn’t.”

Some professors, however, say offering separate heritage classes can be uniquely beneficial to students with experience in the language.

Senior Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literature Maria Luisa Parra-Velasco said she developed the College’s only two heritage track Spanish courses to fill a perceived niche of students who grew up immersed in Latino language and culture but are not confident in their abilities to communicate in academic Spanish.

“Usually in heritage classes, we start with what the students know as the base, and we work very hard to validate that knowledge,” she said. “They come to our classrooms feeling they don’t speak well, so we work with those beliefs from a sociolinguistic point of view.”

While Parra-Velasco said her department has no current plans to expand Spanish heritage offerings, she sees increased heritage tracking as “following a national trend.”

“I think that the heritage languages are being recognized more and more as a national resource, and there are a lot of faculty that is committed to making sure the students value that heritage and make it part of their lives,” she said.

—Staff writer Caroline C. Hunsicker contributed reporting to this story.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: March 10, 2015

An earlier version of this article stated that students in Arabic courses learn alongside heritage speakers. To clarify, these courses include students with prior experience in the Arabic language more broadly.

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