Language Shyness

What is language shyness?

Stephen Krashen introduced the idea of language shyness in his article, “Language Shyness and Heritage Language Development”. This concept has been crucial to helping me form my program for Heritage Language Learners.

Heritage languages are languages spoken in the home but are not part of the dominant culture. Heritage language learners, therefore, receive most of the comprehensible input needed to acquire the language at home. Their exposure is often limited to familiar contexts and the language spoken by very few people. Inevitably their exposure to the heritage language is very incomplete.

In contrast, native speakers receive comprehensible input from a wide diversity of speakers throughout society. Native speakers regularly interact with people in a wide spectrum of registers and therefore are routinely exposed to a fuller representation of the language. While even native speakers often take high school classes to refine their language usage, they have an innate and precise grasp of what feels right in many different social contexts. Heritage learners lack this breadth of experience with the language and frequently display their lack of precision when interacting with native speakers.

Why is this important?

Historically, heritage languages have been nearly impossible to maintain from generation to generation. Krashen suggests that the relationship between the language ability of adolescent heritage learners and their emergent self-identities may help explain why heritage languages are so difficult to maintain. Language use is a major marker of cultural identity; members of the same cultural group instinctively use their native language in the same way. Heritage learners communicating with an incomplete paradigm of the heritage language inadvertently communicate that they do not belong to the language community of native speakers. Questions of self-identity are already magnified during adolescence; for example, young people who self-identify as Mexican come to doubt themselves when repeatedly told “I thought you were Mexican” whenever speaking to native speakers. Error correction can be profoundly harmful to adolescent heritage learners as it confirms the self-doubts of learners who question whether they truly belong to the target language community.

This process of alienation does not necessarily occur on a conscious level; Krashen supplies several anecdotes by heritage learners who describe how the criticism they received led them to shun more contact with their heritage language, leading to a vicious cycle of even less of the comprehensible input that they need to further acquire their heritage language.

As educators, we need to understand the relationship between heritage language development and the emerging self-identity of the adolescents that we teach. Language is a major marker of cultural identity; the criticisms of less than perfect Spanish that our students receive from their families may provoke anxiety and even alienation from the heritage language culture rather than improving their language development.

How should this change the way we teach?

Our classes should provide opportunities for heritage learners to be exposed to appropriate comprehensible input without judgement of their abilities. Free voluntary reading provides an ideal, low-anxiety environment for heritage language development. Watching a TV series like El Internado in class might not be an optimal use of time for a class of highly-proficient speakers, but I have seen alienated lower-level heritage learners embrace the Spanish language after being exposed to media that they consider undeniably cool. Enjoyable exposure to target language media is not simply a “Fun Friday” activity; it can be the bridge to a lifetime of bilingualism.

We should also provide opportunities to learn about target cultures as a way to promote emergent ethnic identities. Providing a safe zone for students to develop their own self-identity will help them not only fit into the target language community better, but also find a healthy identity within a multicultural, multilingual society.

An obvious implication of language shyness is that HL students should not be required to speak or read aloud in class. In my own classes, I now understand most antisocial behavior produced by students as a byproduct of language shyness. Whether I am right or wrong, this understanding has encouraged me to maintain a caring, empathetic posture with even my most difficult students. One of my students told me: 

“The phrase “Ni Aquí, Ni Allá” (neither here nor there) is something that heritage Spanish speakers live with every day. It is almost like an identity crisis where we are not American enough for the United States and not Mexican enough to our families. I noticed this the most during a trip to Durango, Mexico with my mom. I was 14 and had not been to el rancho since I was 6. I was so excited to see my family, but soon became the laughing stock when I would not pronounce something in Spanish correctly or struggled to translate something I only knew how to say in English. The most hurtful part was that my abuelita blamed it on my father whom she had never met since he had been in the U.S. since he was six. They claimed that I had become “too American” and was losing my culture. I started to think of all these characteristics to prove to them that I was proud of my culture. But, they had convinced me that my Spanish was horrible so that when it came to taking a language in high school I decided to enroll in Spanish 1 for beginners. I was so embarrassed to speak Spanish in that class.”

I started sharing the concept of language shyness with my students as I explain why we cannot permit any negativity in class, especially regarding someone´s Spanish. As we do “language community expansion activities” I remind them not to reject language that sounds weird to them. It may simply be from a different dialect. I am impressed that this idea has helped some students remain open to hearing language that I would consider to be “standard Spanish”. Upon hearing about the idea of language shyness another student was inspired to share the following anecdote with me:

“Being Mexican-American is different and sometimes hard to explain. The phenomenon you speak of “language shyness” was something I never thought had a name. As a little girl Spanish was my first language and I never thought there was anything wrong with it… but there does come a time where people start saying that I speak funny and laugh. When I go to Mexico they tell me I have an accent, that I say things funny and when I come back from my trips people at school begin to tell me the same thing. I got made fun of because instead of “pizza” I pronounce it “pikza” and it does affect you as a person. No one wants to be called out or made fun of and many don’t understand why we speak the way we speak. Many learn to hate our second language.”

This article summarizes and describes how I adapted ideas from the article “Language Shyness and Heritage Language Development” by Stephen Krashen. It is available for free download from his website.

The CI Master Class has an entire module outlining my approach to teaching Heritage Language Learners.