Ms. Harfouche, 20, was born in Lebanon, but moved to this verdant Bergen County borough of 9,000 people when she was 6, before learning to read and write in Arabic, the language she and her parents still speak at home. Her mother often tried to sit her down for lessons, but Ms. Harfouche said she avoided them, feigning headaches or claiming that she was too consumed with schoolwork.
“I wanted to fit in so badly,” she said. “I figured if I practiced English, if I spoke English well, I’d be an American, like the other kids in my school.”
But during her sophomore year at Drew University, a small liberal arts college not far from here, Ms. Harfouche signed up for a class in classic Arabic in a quest to become fully literate in her mother tongue. It’s a move that many immigrants who came to the United States as children and those who were born here to immigrant parents have been making, said language experts, who refer to such students as “heritage speakers.”
“As more and larger immigration groups are represented in the United States, what we’re seeing is sort of a renewed sense of ethnic pride taking hold among the younger generations,” said Kathleen E. Dillon, associate director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The U.C.L.A. center, with financing from the United States Education Department, is conducting the first national count of college programs geared toward heritage students, most of whom grew up speaking a language other than English at home.
So far, 28 institutions have responded, from large state universities to small private colleges in all regions of the country. In all, they reported offering 54 foreign-language courses, including 28 specifically for heritage speakers. The survey will continue for at least another two years.
According to a survey by the Modern Language Association of America, which promotes the study of languages and literature, the percentage of students enrolled in foreign-language courses fell, to 9 percent in 2002 from 11 percent in 1970, even as college enrollment nearly doubled overall. But enrollment in certain languages exploded during that period, mirroring immigration patterns, according to the survey.
Enrollment in Chinese classes, for example, grew to 34,000 students from 6,200. The number of students in Arabic classes grew to 11,000 from 1,300, and enrollment in Korean courses jumped to 5,200 from 100.
The Modern Language Association survey did not count how many of those students were heritage speakers. Researchers at U.C.L.A. and Portland State University in Oregon estimate, however, that about half of the college students in the United States who are taking classes in Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi and Tagalog, one of the main languages spoken in the Philippines, are heritage speakers.
At Rutgers University, the South Asian studies program began offering a two-semester Bengali course in 2004 in response to requests from students of Indian and Bangladeshi descent. They make up about 80 percent of the 17 students in the class this term, officials said.
At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, two kinds of Russian classes have been offered over the past decade, one for students who are new to the language and another for those who grew up with it. The division reflects the growth in enrollment by immigrants from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
“A lot of the students who come from Russian-speaking homes join the class thinking they’re going to get an A,” said Prof. Anna Geisherik, who teaches the course for heritage speakers at Stony Brook. “But then they find that their Russian is not that good and that it’s pretty hard to learn to read and write using an alphabet and grammar structure that’s different than the one they’re used to.”
Some of the students end up dropping out, Professor Geisherik said.
Twelve years ago, when Prof. Frances Yufen Lee began teaching Mandarin at Cornell University to heritage speakers of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, the course had one session per semester that enrolled about 20 students. Now, there are four to five sessions each semester, with a total of 120 students — and a waiting list.
“We jokingly call it Chinese for illiterate people or Chinese for people who can’t read or write well, because that’s essentially what it is,” said Lu Ning Yang, 20, who is in the second semester of the three-semester course.