The Heritage and Non-Heritage Learner in the Overseas Immersion Context: Comparing Learning Outcomes and Target-Language Utilization in the Russian Flagship

by Dan E. Davidson, Maria D. Lekic

Appears in issue 62 on page 47.


While the domestic heritage language learner has received increased attention in the literature over the past two decades, relatively little research has been devoted to the heritage student engaged in overseas immersion study (or re-learning) of the home language. Heritage learners have the capacity to become “balanced bilinguals” in their first language with all the cultural and metalinguistic awareness that this entails (Polinsky, 2010). Overseas immersion study may provide a pathway to near-native proficiency (defined here as Level 3+ or Level 4 across modalities) for the heritage learner, based on structured overseas immersion as a language learner, university student, intern and homestay resident.

The present study compares pre- and post-immersion measured proficiency outcomes across modalities for heritage and non-heritage students participating in the Russian Overseas Flagship at St. Petersburg State University between 2004 and 2012 (N=85). Within an outcomes-referenced framework, overall levels and types of target-language utilization reported by heritage and non-heritage subgroups are compared using a rigorous bi-weekly online reporting protocol (96,000 hours). Participant self-evaluations of perceived language gain and relative contributions of individual program components are compared in light of the subjects’ ultimate attainment in the course of the nine-month Flagship program.

Due to the small size of the heritage population, the current study presents no more than emerging trends evidenced within a particular immersion learning model. The mean pre-program proficiency level for all subjects was 2/2+ across modalities, while the mean post-program outcome was 3/3+ for non-heritage students and 4/4+ for heritage students. Patterns of target language utilization outside of class were relatively similar for both groups of learners, with heritage utilization consistent overall with the “high gain” population, as was the overall level of L-2 use: 69.9 hours per week. No significant gender effects were observed for either sub-group, while individual evaluations tended to show heritage students to be somewhat more critical of their language performance than their non-heritage counterparts, while apparently benefitting from heritage-specific “bridge courses.”

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