The study showed that grammar of heritage Russian is clearly qualitatively different from that of the standard Russian grammar. While all three interview participants demonstrated a good command of Russian, they nevertheless made various mistakes, possibly due to the influence of the dominant language. This finding is similar to previous research of L1 attrition due to L2 interference (Schmid 2001, 2004). Pavlenko’s research (2004) speaks in favor of attrition due to linguistic interference, especially when elements of L2 take some functions of L1 elements over, becoming part of the heritage language. This is consistent with Polinsky’s findings (2008a, 2008b), who argues that decline in inflectional morphology is not a random process, but rather a general phenomenon. Gürel’s (2004) explains selective L2-induced heritage language attrition, which is explained by restructuring that happens in the heritage language according to L2 grammatical features. Montrul’s (2008) argues that attrition can be attributed to language loss that happens across generations, when language attrition and loss are typical for the second generation of immigrants (Portes & Hao, 1998).
Even though language diversity is one of the main goals of the European Union, and the focus is on respecting linguistic rights of minority language speakers, there are several reasons why we witness language attrition.
Firstly, parents are afraid that their children will face problems while trying to integrate into the Finnish society. Some of them express their fears openly (Aleksi’s case), others might articulate this argument differently. For example, parents of all three participants avoided speaking Russian in public, even though they would use Russian to communicate at home. This creates an impression that speaking a minority language is “wrong”, which leads to less motivation to use it, and eventually it contributes to language attrition.
Secondly, even though the Ministry of Education directs that children in Finland have the right to have access to education in their mother tongue, in practice there are problems with identifying specific needs of heritage speakers.
I was having my teaching practice at Itä-Suomen yliopiston harjoittelukoulu in Joensuu (UEF Teacher Training School) in 2018. As part of my teaching practice, I needed to give classes to students in the primary school, elementary school, and in the secondary school (alakoulu, yläkoulu, lukio). I worked with close cooperation with two Russian teachers (one of them is a native Finnish speaker, and another one is a native Russian speaker).
While observing their classes and preparing for my own classes, I noticed that there were always a few children whose mother tongue is Russian. I asked the teacher what strategies they used to satisfy the needs of those children. Unfortunately, both teachers complained that most of the time they just give them some separate assignment while working with the rest of the group. According to them, it is almost impossible to find suitable coursebooks for this purpose, so every time they have to improvise and find supplementary resources for these learners. Unfortunately, this always leads to physical and social separation of students: during the lesson, these children are either in a different room (the teacher’s room), or sit at the back of the classroom. So, there is no universal approach that teachers use in their teaching practices to educate heritage speakers.
UEF Teacher Training School has classes for native and heritage speakers of Russian. These classes are held once or twice per week, and children from different grades participate in them. I had pleasure to observe some classes and discussed them with the teacher. She outlined the difficulties of her work.
First of all, children were from different grades and of different ages, so it was challenging for the teacher to choose materials that would be suitable for learners of different ages. Secondly, those classes were held in a different classroom every time. This did not only create difficulty for the
students as they were struggling to find the right classroom, but also created a feeling that such classes is something supplementary, something that did not deserve its own place. Thirdly, the teacher complained that the worst of all was parents’ attitude. If students missed classes and the teacher contacted them to talk about it, parents replied that “It is not a big deal”. Obviously, with such attitude children were not motivated to do their homework and regarded these classes as fun extracurricular activities.
There is a lack of course books for Russian heritage speakers around the world. I graduated from a Russian university with a degree in teaching Russian, and most of the people I graduated with moved abroad. They continue their career as language teachers and opened their schools or courses in different countries: Singapore, Italy, the USA, and Germany. I talked to every one of them about their strategies and learned that they all experienced a severe lack of resources for heritage language speakers or even bilingual children living in foreign countries. All of my colleagues prepare their own materials to teach a class, and 2 out of 4 decided to publish their own course books for Russian heritage learners living abroad.
To support Russian heritage speakers in Finland, it is important to learn about their age, family history, exposure to the heritage language and the dominant language, skills, profiles, interests, cultural peculiarities, motivation, and so on. Typical for heritage speakers native or near-native fluency in Finnish also should be taken into account when preparing language courses. This all will help address the problem of maintaining the heritage language and demonstrate a positive example of multilingualism and multiculturalism.
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Study: Attrition of Russian case morphology: a study of three Russian heritage speakers living in Finland (master’s thesis)
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