Students reflect on heritage, language barriers

Cameron Gorman

When Reyam Hadi was 10 years old, she moved to the United States with her family. They had previously lived in Jordan and Iraq, so Hadi said she was used to moving, and wasn’t overly worried about adjusting — even though she couldn’t speak English.

“So it was 2008 when I actually came to America, and my father had passed away, so my mom wanted us to have a better life here, Hadi said. “… She picked America because my aunt lives here, and that’s why we came to Ohio specifically, and that process took about a year, year and a half. So after that, we came to America. I did not know any English whatsoever.”

Hadi spoke Arabic, but began to pick up English through school, observations, and repeated viewings of the children’s cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.” She said it took her around two years to get comfortable with talking to others.

“I would write down basic information, but I honestly, that’s not how I learned it,” Hadi said. “Where I learned it is when I actually started going to school in sixth grade. We would have some Arabic students that would help us out with like tests and all that, so I would communicate with them, too … another thing is watching SpongeBob, honestly. I would watch the same episode over and over again … and we would just keep watching it, and that’s basically how we just started learning.”

Now at Kent State, Hadi, a junior business management major, is considering taking a foreign language course — Spanish or Arabic. If she were to take Arabic, she would be considered a heritage student — one who has grown up in America, but hears a language other than English at home. Hadi’s mother speaks both English and Arabic.

“There’s things that we can’t say in English, so we would have to say it in Arabic,” Hadi said. “So sometimes my whole sentence is chopped up in Arabic and English mixed together.”

By contrast, native speaker students are defined as, “students who have been born, raised and educated through high school in a culture in which a language other than English is the dominant language,” according to the department of modern and classical languages studies.

These classifications, however, are fuzzy at best, said Jessie Carduner, an associate professor of Spanish and undergraduate coordinator, who has taught students she would consider heritage or native speakers.

“For me, the definition of a heritage or native speaker is across the board, so they’re all individual students, and their background is different from each other’s too, so I couldn’t classify them as a whole group,” Carduner said.

Still, one thing is clear — these student’s experiences with language affect their lives both at home and in the classroom.

In School

“Generally, I find their vocabulary is usually stronger than my English speaking students,” Carduner said.  “In general, they’re pretty fluent and pretty confident in their speaking.”

The extra practice a heritage speaker might encounter at home could prove advantageous, said Said Shiyab, a professor of translation studies and the graduate studies coordinator in the modern and classical language studies department.

“Using the language at home is always helpful,” Shiyab said. “I think it’s much better than the classroom setting, because I think kids at home, they’re not really forced to speak the language. They use it naturally and spontaneously, and this is one of the best way of learning a foreign language.”

Other advantages these students might have in the classroom include their ability to pronounce words in the language.

“There is evidence that if you learn a language before 12, you don’t develop an accent,” said Mariana Romero-González, a Spanish lecturer and the elementary Spanish coordinator. “You are closer to the natural accent of the language, versus when you are learning it older. For some reason, the sounds are more difficult to produce than when you are little.”

When you are young, you begin to build a phonetic alphabet in your brain, Romero-González explained.

“So you are recognizing sounds, and then when you are born and then you start learning to speak, it’s mostly how to modulate your mouth to produce sounds to imitate what you hear,” Romero-González said. “But basically, those sounds are there in your brain. So if you grew up in a house listening to two languages or more than two languages, you are more prone to develop, or you have an advantage on how easy it is for you to produce the sounds.”

At Home

Romero-González has also taught heritage speakers in her classes, including Jailiene Vazquez, a sophomore political science major, who is enrolled in a Spanish class.

“The one thing with me is that I don’t know how to verbally speak it, but that was because I was never taught when I was little,” Vazquez said, “so eventually I just caught onto what they were saying, and being the oldest out of my sister and then my three younger cousins, I’ve been around longer, so I understand more than them.”

Vazquez is Puerto Rican, and so is her family — she said she has grown up around Spanish.

“As soon as I got old enough to understand more what they were talking about, what they got us for Christmas was not secret anymore,” Vazquez said.

Her father, however, didn’t necessarily want to teach her his native language.

“When I was little, my grandma, she ended up quitting her job to take care of me because both my parents were working, and she, I would imagine, she wanted to teach me Spanish, but my dad he didn’t want me to learn it because when he did come over from Puerto Rico, you know, he’d get made fun of, and stuff like that because he didn’t know how to speak English,” Vazquez said. “So he must have thought, well he doesn’t want that to happen to me.”

This is not uncommon, Carduner said.

“They’re worried about their children fitting in,” Carduner said. “When I lived in California, I had a girlfriend that was like that, and she was actually really afraid to speak Spanish with me, because she said her parents had just forced her to do English, and I’m pretty sure it was for assimilation reasons.”

Part of what made Vazquez want to enroll in Spanish was to strengthen the connection to her family.

“I have family on my dad’s side living in Puerto Rico, and we can’t go there that often because of money and stuff like that, and it would be nice to actually get to talk to them,” Vazquez said. “Just because we don’t see them all the time, last time I saw them when they came over here, it was a few years ago. It would just be nice to not have that disconnect.”

This sentiment was echoed by other heritage speakers, including Chance Zurub, a senior international relations major, whose father was born in Palestine.

“Whenever I would visit his family in Canada, it would all be in Arabic, or I would visit his family in Qatar over in the Middle East, it would all be in Arabic,” Zurub said. “So in that sense, I would have like a big disconnect from my family, and I would have to ask him to translate, which was kind of bothersome. He didn’t speak Arabic that much in the house, but when he was around his friends or around his family, he would speak it.”

Zurub has been part of Kent State’s Arabic program for two and a half years, and though he has improved, the frustration is still there.

“It’s still difficult to this day because, I mean, I speak a little bit of Arabic now, but my Arabic is far from fluent,”  Zurub said. “But definitely that disconnect, as in not being able to communicate with someone that is your family … that was the biggest kind of disconnection that I felt, because all the feelings were still there, we’re still family. But at the same time, it’s like how do I communicate with you in a sense where we’re going to fully understand what we’re saying.”

Shiyab has had experience with this language barrier in his own life. He came to the United States from Jordan in 1977, and said that only one of his children can speak Arabic.

“Definitely, students feel sometimes more passionate about learning the language of mom and dad,” Shiyab said. “Even if they have difficulty understanding … my assumption would be in the long run that kids will learn their mom and dad’s language, even when they get older. Because during all these years, they’ve felt that they have missed something important about mom and dad, that is the language and the culture.”

Still, for those students learning a language, such as Abdulrahman Alkazaz, a senior biology major who has finished a minor in Arabic, the knowledge can prove to be a bridge over those barriers.

“It was partially just because of personal preference that I wanted to do it, but then I also saw, ‘Oh, now I can start communicating with the family more instead of just saying basic phrases, and now I can have deeper conversations with them’ … it’s nicer to talk to my relatives and my cousins and find out how they’re actually doing, rather than just having a basic conversation,” Alkazaz said.

Alkazaz said that his father, who was born and raised in Syria, taught him some basic Arabic when he was growing up — and now approves of his continued education in it.

“He really liked it,” Alkazaz said. “It was nice, because I made sure to tell him when I first wanted to learn about it, and he was really accepting, he was like, ‘Oh yeah, if you have any questions, you know you can come to me and I’ll help you out.’”

Challenges

Of course, heritage speakers do encounter some difficulties unique to their situations in the classroom — such as the difficulties of different varieties of languages such as Arabic, such as the differences in Alkazaz’s father’s variety of Arabic.  

“I would ask him, like, ‘Why would you tell me this is a way how to pronounce things, when I’m learning this?’ And he’s like, ‘Well you’re learning the formal Arabic, but the dialogue Arabic, what’s spoken in Syria is a little different,’” Alkazaz said. “So some of the words that I knew actually from growing up were different than what was being told and taught.”

Zurub encountered this same issue with his father, who speaks with a gulf accent.

“The meanings of some of the words carry differences, and the dialect that we learn is the formal dialect, which is the language used in the Quran, so it’s like an older, classical version, which isn’t widely spoken today,” Zurub said. “So imagine reading a Shakespeare book, and talking in Shakespearean English to someone. They would understand, but it’s like, ‘Woah, why are you talking like that?’”

Hussam Atef, a graduate assistant in the department of modern and classical languages studies who teaches Arabic, recognizes this in his classroom.

“One of the students, her mom is Syrian, and she speaks Syrian dialect, and what she’s learning in class is different from the Arabic that she already knows,” Atef said. “Yeah, they find it difficult sometimes.”

To combat this difficulty, Atef teaches a more standardized form of Arabic in the classroom, and tries to individualize his approach.

“I sometimes teach them some phrases in their home dialect, that they can practice with their parents at home,” Atef said. “The reason for that is, well first, to teach them some Arabic, and to make them talk to their parents, and just to break the barrier with them and just to … encourage their parents to speak back to them in Arabic.”

Romero-González said she also relies on individualized feedback to help heritage students, whether they are above or below the base level of the class.

“Any student faces frustration when they have to re-learn a concept that they learned either wrongly, or they had a misconceptions, and that happens in any subject and for any student, I think,” Romero-González said. “For heritage speakers, I think it would depend on the person and the approach that the person would have towards learning that language.”

Connection

Above all, though heritage speakers might find themselves at an advantage in the classroom, learning more about their language seems to be a way to connect with their roots.

“Every time Arabic got hard, because it’s by no means an easy language, it’s one of the hardest languages to learn, I would remember the reasons why I was learning it,” Zurub said. “It’s deeper than just wanting to be part of my profession or part of just a job or learning it for fun. Personally, I feel like Arabic is like a part of me as a person, because my dad and half my family speaks Arabic. So it’s important for me to learn that.”

Hadi, who said her mother is adamant about helping her to remembering her Arabic origins, agreed.

“It’s part of you. So I’m still me from when I was born, until 10 years old — that was my whole life, was Arabic,” Hadi said. “I mean, that’s a really weird way of saying it, but it’s still a part of me, and I don’t think forgetting Arabic is a good idea. I think everybody should hold onto their language.”

Cameron Gorman is the humanities reporter. Contact her at [email protected]