Heritage Speakers

By Aviva Kohn and Eliana Salmon

In the United States, where the official language is English, those who speak a different native language often integrate the spoken words and the culture of another country into their homes. Heritage speakers are the children who are raised in these linguistically mixed households. The concept of a heritage speaker is an interesting one. Although these children never formally learn the language in a classroom, they are able to understand and often converse fully in the language they hear at home. For some, a heritage language is their first language and they are able to speak like a native. For others, the language is a part of the fabric of their family but is secondary to English. This is typically dependent on whether one or both parents are native speakers and whether they choose to speak to their children in the language.

Interestingly, over 80% of Heschel students are comfortable holding a conversation in another language. Among the languages spoken are some learned in school, such as French or Spanish, but they also include languages such as Farsi, Portuguese, German, Russian, and Yiddish. While a majority speaks English at home, many also converse with their families in another language. In fact, almost 20% of the student body did not learn English as their first language. Other than English, the most common first language is Hebrew, followed closely by Russian.

Heschel encourages students to take another language when they enter ninth grade. Offering Hebrew, Spanish, French, Latin, and, in senior year, Ancient Greek, the school provides many opportunities to pick up another language or to formalize a heritage speaker’s knowledge. Focusing heavily on grammar and literature, the World Languages classes provide an opportunity to solidify a conversational familiarity with a language and transform it into a sophisticated one.

Senior Abigail Rasol’s first language was Russian. She grew up speaking Russian at home with her parents and sister; in fact, she only began to learn English when she attended school at the age of five. Rasol went to Russian school for many years, giving her the ability to read and write in the language. Completely fluent in conversational Russian, she recognizes that her knowledge has “definitely given me opportunities.” On a practical basis, being able to speak this language has allowed her to connect with family members all around the world. They all speak different languages and have different experiences, yet they can all still communicate through Russian. In her words, “Being able to speak Russian forges a linguistic common-ground between myself and my relatives in Latvia, Israel, and beyond. Not only does it connect us together through our roots, but in a practical sense, it connects us in being able to communicate, as we all speak different languages in our home countries.”

Looking back at her time at Szarvas, a Jewish camp in Hungary, Rasol credits her knowledge of Russian with her ability to speak with the students from the Russian group on a “deeper and more intimate level.” It was the first time her knowledge of the language was necessary for communication; it was an incredibly special experience. Additionally, Rasol’s knowledge of her ancestors’ language has allowed her to connect with her family history differently. She credits Russian with being the uniting factor between herself and the generations of the past.

Sophomore Eduardo Szajman was born in Brazil; his first language was Portuguese. He moved to the United States at the age of seven and, like Rasol, entered first grade at Heschel with no background in English. “I knew a few words when I arrived here but I didn’t know how to speak,” recalls Szajman. “By the start of second grade, I was almost fluent.”

Although he occasionally converses with his siblings in English, Szajman speaks with his family almost exclusively in Portuguese. “Honestly, I don’t even think about it. It’s very natural to go between English and Portuguese,” he said. When asked what language he thinks in, Szajman said that it depends on the subject matter. If he is doing math, his thoughts are usually in English since he was taught math in America. However, if he is reading an article in Portuguese, he finds that his thoughts transition into Portuguese.

A form of diversity that is often overlooked, both within and beyond our school community, is linguistic diversity. Heschel is proud of its heritage speakers and the many students who have devoted themselves to studying foreign languages and integrating the beauty of foreign languages into their lives.

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