Spanish for Heritage Speakers

CATEGORIES: October 2020

What does it mean to “teach” Spanish to someone who has spoken it their entire life? How do you build upon what they already know to give them confidence speaking, reading and writing? That was the challenge for Marta Vessoni-Lence last year when she began to develop a new course for the Department of World Languages and Cultures: SPAN/USLS 305X—Spanish for Heritage Speakers.

“A heritage speaker is a person who has learned the language by being exposed to it at home but has received little or no formal academic instruction in the language. The heritage language may be their native tongue or their first language when growing up, but it becomes a secondary language when they receive their formal education in a different language and/or they spend most of the time speaking the dominant language outside home” said Lence.

The challenge for many heritageSpanish speakers is when they want to progress in an academic or professional setting. They may not feel confident with formal usage or written grammar. Others are more comfortable with conversational Spanish but less adept at public speaking. For these students, Spanish 101 is way too easy, but they might not be ready to jump right into an advanced Spanish language course.

“That’s where a course specially designed for them like Span 305 comes in. We use a different pedagogy,” Lence explained.

“When you learn a new language, you start with basic vocabulary and build up to sentences and then paragraphs discourse, step by step, working your way to readings. But heritage speakers start with a vast vocabulary, so we can jump right into readings and using those to learn more about grammar and formal vocabulary usage. In SPAN/USLS 305X, we build upon the knowledge students bring to the class.”

The students enjoy the feeling of community in the class from day one. Most are not necessarily majors in the WLC department and, for many, it is the first time they’ve attended a class conducted entirely in Spanish. It quickly becomes a safe space to share their experiences, struggles and ambitions.

For Carmen Segoviano, a senior majoring in elementary education with a Spanish minor, SPAN 305X was an opportunity to learn how to become a better teacher in the future for other heritage speakers. One of her projects particularly stood out as describing a shared experience for many in her class. “I had to present about an article on how, as kids, we’re expected to translate documents for our parents,” she said. “There were a lot of us who grew up having to do that.”

Professor Lence says that some of the students go on to continue studying Spanish after the course, even pursuing a major or minor in their heritage language or a US Latino Studies minor. This accomplishment is a source of pride for the Spanish program at WLC, our heritage speakers, and their families.

Marta Vessoni-Lence

SPAN/USLS 305X will be offered next in the Spring 2021 semester. Check out this article for a student’s perspective of the course.