Heritage Language Learners of Spanish

Caring for the whole quilt: linguistic diversity in a heritage classroom

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At the ACTFL convention in 2018 I teamed up with educator Sean Lawler to lead a Socratic round table discussion about the many ways language teachers unwittingly alienate heritage language learners (HLLs) of Spanish. If you have ever attended one of these mega-conventions, you’ll probably recognize that the format is an unusual one; rarely do we have authentic discussions built into the program. A good round table session is, however, a conversation rather than a presentation. If you attend an ACTFL convention, I do recommend that you find the area dedicated to round table sessions. If the discussion does not light up, you only have yourself to blame!

I am thinking about this topic of alienation because I see that reality in many of my heritage language learners. Not among all students of course, but many of the HLLs that pass through these buildings exhibit some degree of cultural alienation from school and national culture. “You can’t reach every single student”, we tell ourselves. Building a warm, student-centered class culture is my first concern and honestly, I am not losing sleep over being a good, competent teacher. However, giving up on these kids would be a sign that I need to retire; accepting that there is always room to grow is the mark of a professional educator. I wanted to calmly examine my practice on a more profound level. Prior to the conference I began to question which elements of my classes were most successful at drawing students in and which elements were either neutral or even might be contributing to the alienation of my heritage language learners. Why could I connect superbly with some students but failed miserably with others?

While working on this essay I noticed a tweet by Latin teacher Bob Patrick lamenting that educators are generally trained to reach for the middle performers, a practice that keeps the classroom chugging along but inevitably leaves the lowest achievers further and further behind. Providing solid instruction while shrugging off what I see in the eyes of my most disaffected students is another manifestation of that “aiming for the middle” approach that Bob denounces. I can do something about this.

Back to the round table discussion: first, I ask a question and wait in silence for a response. The format of a convention leads many of us to treat open questions as if they were rhetorical; if the discussion leader quickly jumps in to provide an answer, then this round table will likely turn into a passive presentation. Instead, I tried to sit back and enjoy that awkward moment of silence. My question was: how does the existence of diverse language communities influence the relationships we make with our heritage language learner students? A useful question because, for some teachers who have not explicitly interrogated their own beliefs, respect for cultural diversity may not naturally extend to respect for linguistic diversity.

There may still exist somewhere a teacher who perceives a natural hierarchy in which there is one perfect Spanish that we all admire, sitting atop of a pile of lesser-loved variations, some more accepted and some to be shunned. That is an embarrassingly antiquated notion. I have met teachers who are sticklers for “correct language”, and I have met proper teachers from Spain who beg me to stop using El Internado in class due to the perceived low value of the language. However, I have never met a Spanish teacher who fights tooth and nail for a particular variation of the Spanish language. My strict colleagues who bemoan the lack of vosotros in my teaching accept that insisting on using vosotros in a country where that form is never used would not be “correct language”. When cornered, I think that my strict colleagues truly believe that students should be exposed to “culturally appropriate language”. I too believe that students should be exposed to culturally appropriate language; it is just that my appreciation of the concept has grown to become much, much broader than that of those strict colleagues.

What is culturally appropriate cannot to be determined by a single schoolteacher or any individual speaker; it is the concern of an entire language community. We simply reflect on what we perceive from the larger community. Of course, teachers must dictate the boundaries of appropriate language in a school context, but we do so at the risk of losing our perceived authority with the language. Imagine an extreme example: an American teacher who has decided that the highest register of British English should be emulated for the AP English Lit exam. Clearly a ridiculous choice, completely ignorant of the language community that the students inhabit! How would my American students react if their English teacher insisted on proper British English. It would probably be far too weird to even take seriously, yet are we Spanish teachers too far from that imaginary scenario? Especially if our students perceive, rightly or wrongly, a value judgement emanating from us each time someone opens their mouth in class.

I do dictate boundaries in class. For example, I do not allow swearing in class even when we observe it in videos such as El Internado. On the other hand, I do not control their expression to the point that the language feels foreign to them. In HLL classes of Spanish in the USA there is typically a greater linguistic diversity among our students than in an English class in the same school. We cannot simply slip into a dominant variation like the American English teacher because, in our classes, linguistic diversity is the rule, not the exception. For that reason, a Spanish teacher of heritage language learners must work to convey respect, not merely acceptance, of other language communities. Anything less runs the risk of alienating students whose language community differs from whatever appears to be the norm.

This gets much trickier and more polemical, however, when I truly examine the students that I have in front of me. When we talk about language communities, this is not simply code for the highest register variations that exist throughout the Spanish-speaking world. A language community does not only refer to national variations; language communities contain markers that express class identity (think of the speech of fresas in Mexico), ethnicity, regional identity, even things like the age or generational identity of the speaker. Culturally appropriate language is complex! My colleagues from El Salvador tell me that, in their language community, it is appropriate to use the word pinche in full voice in a sacred space like a church. Don’t try that in Mexico!

But it is not just a matter of vocabulary; being fluent in a particular language variation is perhaps the strongest mark of tribal identity that humans intuitively recognize. This is why English teachers who make it their mission to eliminate distinct characteristics of African American speech among their students hit a tremendous wall: erasing the unique language of a social group is an attempt to eliminate an entire community. It is one thing to demand norms of polite language use in class, but it is another thing altogether to seek to eliminate vestiges of a community from public spaces.

Questioning self-identity is a big thing for all adolescents. Since language is the principal marker of group identity, it is unsurprising that heritage language learners whose language expression (in both English & Spanish) is routinely questioned may feel even more insecure than other adolescents. The great thing about teaching to maximize comprehensible input is that we do not need to ever place ourselves in the role of judge; all we need to do is provide comprehensible examples of culturally appropriate language without value judgements. Our students will broaden their language community naturally, provided enough CI.

The real problem with my colleagues’ insistence on “correct language” is that the teacher inevitably does not perceive the multiple language communities through which our heritage language learners travel. We teachers do not have to be fluent in the many language variations of our students in order to teach them, but we do have an obligation to respect their cultural background. To create a productive student-teacher relationship, we have an obligation to convey our respect.

HLL students and their parents often come into my classroom with the assumption that I am representing a superior, high-value variation of Spanish that they do not speak. Some appear shy and embarrassed, some parents are relieved that their children will learn “correct” Spanish, and some are angry and distrustful. One of the more powerful outcomes of our round table discussion was the realization that none of us had an explicit, repetitive technique to drill home the point that the teacher’s language community is neither superior nor inferior to the students’ language communities. It is simply a variation that is useful because it is culturally appropriate in some situations. Their home language use, the language that they use in a community celebration, the language that they use with relatives during a holiday visit to their parent’s hometown, the language we use in academic writing… all of these may differ and are valuable in their contexts. It is not that I don’t say this in class because I do; however I need a way of showing this on a daily level and demonstrating that I own these beliefs.

I feel like my students who have had a more stable formal education in a Spanish-speaking country often adapt easily to my HLL class. Perhaps it is because my Spanish does not threaten their identity. They are at ease and confident when an obscure regionalism slips past their lips that no one else understands; they understand that no one has the authority to mock or deride their language use. I also have had Chicanos in class who cultivate a wonderfully playful approach to Spanish that is all their own. There is something overtly political in the way they own the language. They are evidence that there are vibrant North American Spanish language communities where the Spanish language is flourishing despite the rhetoric from up high that the USA is a monolingual country.

On the other hand, my students who self-identify first and foremost as Spanish-speakers but have had a less stable childhood or who have had an extremely limited language community consisting only of close family members are students who are likely to be guarded, defensive, unsure of themselves and less likely to trust me. These are the students that are deeply alienated from our school and national culture.

Ironically, I suspect that these are the students that I, of all of their teachers, am best positioned to reach. In their eyes I represent something… and it may not be something good. I need to be prepared to counter the beliefs and expectations that they come to class with, but what are they exactly?

In our round table discussion someone brought up the idea that respecting language diversity requires teachers to view their students’ language as more like a mosaic or quilt, consisting of components useful for different parts of their lives, and not at all like a hierarchy of good and bad habits. We all felt comfortable with this metaphor, I think, perhaps because we could envision ourselves working on different parts of the quilt without disturbing the students’ overall sense of self.

No one articulated this, but I wonder if this metaphor might give some teachers permission to indulge in their own fantasy of working to build a student’s “academic language skills” part of the quilt without paying heed to other parts of the quilt. I worry that simply developing academic language without attending to students’ ethnic identities may serve to alienate them further from the secure bases of their self-identity.

The value of the quilt metaphor, in my mind, is to help teachers envision how important explicitly celebrating linguistic diversity is to support all aspects of a student’s identity. We need to care for the whole quilt. Truly seeing my students and the diversity of their language communities is a first step.

This essay is soon to be published in the new 3rd edition of, “Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers”. Coming in May 2022!

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