What are heritage language learners?
Language students with a familial connection to the target language and culture are commonly referred to as heritage language learners (HLLs). According to Guadalupe Valdés (2001), a HLL in the U.S. is defined as “a language student who is raised in a home where a non-English target language is spoken and who speaks or at least understands the language and is to some degree bilingual in that language and in English” (p. 38). The use of the term “heritage language learner” varies widely across studies, referencing a range of learners from fluent native speakers fully integrated in a heritage language community, to non-speakers, generations removed from the heritage language (HL) with loose cultural ties to the HL (e.g., Fishman, 2001; van Deusen-Scholl, 2003). Across the nation, changing tolerance toward linguistic and cultural diversity is reflected in Hispanics’ views on the importance of language maintenance. Regarding Spanish, while nearly three-fourths of Hispanics in the United States (U.S.) do not believe speaking Spanish is essential to one’s Hispanic identity, fully 95% say it is important that future generations of Hispanics living in the U.S. speak Spanish (Krogstad, 2016). These findings reflect a recent shift in priorities among Hispanics and a more positive disposition toward one’s Spanish-English bilingualism. Increased values placed on education have led to higher high school graduation rates, and coupled with rapid population growth, contribute to the shift in university demographics (Fry & Lopez, 2012). While this contributes to Hispanic youth holding a more positive view of their Hispanic heritage than in previous generations, a focus on formal education contributes to a decline in Spanish proficiency as youth are socialized more strongly into English-dominant societal practices.
Where Spanish language programs are falling short
One of the growing challenges facing Spanish language programs in the US has been how to guide the development of heritage language learners most effectively to help them reach their integrative and instrumental goals. With the number of Hispanic students enrolling in Spanish language programs across the US on the rise, it is exceedingly critical for language programs to be able to manage the diverse needs of the modern language classroom (Edstrom, 2007). The fact that more and more Spanish heritage speakers (SHS) are enrolling in college and in Spanish language courses presents an opportunity to shift this trend in linguistic practices for motivated heritage language learners. Furthermore, in the past decade several university Spanish language programs have dedicated valuable research and educational resources toward the development of HL university-level students (Beaudrie, 2011). A shift in mentality in conjunction with a better understanding of how to approach HL development and the increased availability of specialized resources at the university level makes it more likely than ever that U.S.-born Hispanic university students might be able to (re)connect with their linguistic roots and reverse the trend of diminishing Spanish-English bilingualism for some heritage language learners.
Although pedagogical interest in HL education in the U.S. can be traced back three hundred years (Fishman, 2014), the field has recently experienced growth in terms of HL programs and cutting-edge teaching practices (Beaudrie, 2011; Beaudrie & Fairclough, 2012). In line with an ecological validity wave in HL research (Chun, 2016), recent research on HL development recommends creating realistic language contexts that approximate actual communication exchanges by generating connections with other speakers of Spanish. Ideally, learners begin the process of communicative development in more familiar and less threatening contexts and gradually move to the broader community and to the world as students develop their competence and confidence interacting in the language varieties of the HL (Belpoliti & Fairclough, 2016; Fairclough, 2016). They also suggested activities where students can employ both formal and informal registers, providing opportunities to practice navigating the types of social complexities heritage language learners might encounter in the world beyond the controlled environment of the classroom. Beyond authentic practice, service and community learning (Leeman, 2005, 2015), as well as study abroad (Shively, 2016) and computer-mediated interactions (Blake & Zyzik, 2003; Henshaw, 2016a, 2016b), were suggested as ideal interactional opportunities for heritage language learners. Henshaw (2016b) pointed to the use and benefits of web-based technology as a potential solution in terms of online university language classes. She highlighted the ability for learners to work independently as they confront language-related issues and take risks in a less face-threatening environment than the traditional face-to-face classroom. Done well, supplementing language programs with language coaching that takes into consideration the latest recommendations from scholars has the potential to meet the holistic and differentiated needs of heritage language learners.
Understanding the psycho-sociological aspects of HLLs
Given the personal nature of HL learning, approaches to HLA must consider the affective issues noted above more purposefully when considering language use and development. Heritage language learners are neither monolingual NSs nor SLLs of the target language, which means understanding the psycho-sociological aspects of HLLs’ disposition to language learning, like affective issues, confidence, ethnic identity, and connection with other speakers of the target language, is critical (He, 2010; Klee, 2011; Valdés, 2001). While these notions of confidence, identity, and connection to interlocutors may be important for SLLs, understanding heritage language learners in comparison with SLLs sheds further light on the unique needs of this population and the importance of a differentiated approach to HLL development (Bowles, 2011; Mikulski, 2010; Potowski, Jegerski, & Morgan‐Short, 2009). Generally, at the root of these differences between HLLs and SLLs are the age and environment in which they were first exposed to the language (Montrul, Foote, & Perpiñán, 2008). Heritage language learners have typically grown up with exposure to the language in the home from an early age, often from birth. However, the quality and quantity of interaction varies considerably across this notoriously heterogenous population (Montrul, 2010). Language dominance for many second-generation HSs shifts from Spanish to English when they enter the public-school system around age five. At this time, their exposure to Spanish becomes radically reduced, limited to simpler language used in everyday interaction with familiar people and registers. School systems rarely support the development of academic skills in languages other than English beyond traditional language classes. As a result, heritage language learners lack access to full academic and professional registers and typically have stronger aural comprehension and speaking skills than literacy skills (Carrera, 2004; Colombi & Roca, 2003; Potowski, 2014).
As Ellison (2006) purported, “language is the key to a person’s identity because it is so often taken as a biological inheritance that its association with ethnic paternity is both frequent and powerful” (p. 134). The choice of curricula and methods for heritage language learners must aim to bring identity, personal connection, authentic use, and legitimization to the forefront of instruction. Readings, tasks, conversational partners, videos, and other pedagogical materials must be conscientiously selected to emphasize the rich linguistic history of the heritage language learners’ language, the variety inherent among speakers of the HL, and the overall value of being multilingual and multicultural for the individual and for society (Lynch, 2003; Potowski, 2010). Klee (2011) noted that in the U.S., there has generally been a hostile attitude toward Latino communities (p. 357). Thus, it is imperative that those interested in working with heritage language learners are socially informed on attitudes toward the HL and its speakers. Importantly, they must utilize this knowledge to develop programs and promote discourse that serves to combat the national rhetoric and aid heritage language learners in seeing their connection to the HL and ability to communicate with it as positive and legitimate. Importantly, when considering the case of Spanish as a HL in the US and heritage language learners development, there are critical differences that come to light in comparison with other varieties of HLLs (e.g., French, German). The history of Spanish in the US has long been accompanied by a tradition of discrimination and lack of overt prestige in socio-political and educational spaces. HSs of other varieties of HLs, for example those of Western European descent, may not face the same types of traumatic experiences impacting their connection between language development and ethnic identity. This, in turn, would have important implications for the type of developmental support necessitated when working with populations of heritage language learners whose linguistic roots are associated with marginalized and historically undervalued ethnic groups.
Fostering stronger connections in communities
A critical component identified in “innovative strategies” for HL development is fostering connections between heritage language learners and their target community, both for increased interactional opportunities as well as to develop personal connections with a variety of speakers of Spanish in the target language (Valdés, Fishman, Chávez, & Pérez, 2006). While this can be difficult to accomplish in a classroom setting, instructors of HLLs have begun to look to technology to address the complexities of developing communicative abilities in the learner’s HL. However, most of the focus for heritage language learners has been on the use of technology for online and hybrid university classes (e.g., Coryell, Clark, & Pomerantz, 2010; Henshaw, 2016a, 2016b; Yanguas, 2018). By having HLLs engage in a series of one-on-one, videoconferenced NS coaching sessions in conjunction with their course work, NS coaching can play a critical role in heritage language learners’ affective development and subsequently the development of their linguistic and interactional competences. Moreover, facilitating global connections for heritage language learners can contribute to the awareness of and appreciation for the breadth of linguistic varieties associated with the Spanish language. The personal nature of the one-to-one relationship between coach and learner has the potential to allow both participants to produce alignment moves (e.g., backchanneling, providing additional information to elaborate on the previous speaker’s utterance) during the interaction that become increasingly based on their shared knowledge and established common ground. Moreover, it offers a safe and trusted environment for learners to work through individual issues related to their linguistic and affective development (Lee, 2007). Finally, having a source of support promotes communicative risk-taking in context beyond the learning environment.
A successful heritage language program
The approach must accommodate the learner’s individual interests and provide opportunities for learners to address and reflect on issues related to self, identity, and language use. As Beaudrie and Fairclough (2012) asserted, a successful HL program “requires innovative and flexible curricula that are adaptable to diverse needs” (p. 215). While HL instruction must meet the needs of individual learners, HL classes often comprise a diverse population of students despite being broadly categorized as heritage speakers, making it difficult or impossible for instructors to satisfy their needs. This motivates the use of a supplemental one-on-one NS coach in conjunction with a SHL course. These moments of interaction during the coaching sessions offer the types of meaningful and ‘apprenticing’ interactions that are assumed to support learners’ development of confidence, skills, and empowered autonomy. These changes are hypothesized to be evidenced by learners taking a more active role in participation and by learners and coaches engaging in increasingly mutual collaborative dialogue.
Beaudrie and Ducar (2005) called for HL researchers and practitioners to aid “in the creation of specific pedagogical goals that will move these learners beyond the classroom walls into the Hispanic community” (p. 2). One of the major challenges facing SHL programs is building the confidence and proficiency of students so that they feel comfortable using the HL beyond the classroom (Valdés et al., 2006). In their survey of twenty heritage language learners from a beginning-level Spanish as a heritage language (SHL) program, Beaudrie and Ducar (2005) reported “that one of their major obstacles in communicating in Spanish was their lack of confidence . . . in their Spanish speaking abilities and in the validity or prestige level of their own variety of Spanish” (p. 12). To do so, the appropriate environment for learning must be established. They highlighted the fact that “students at this level both expect and need to learn within an atmosphere that fosters confidence in their use of the Spanish language” (p. 14), stressing that “this goal can only be achieved if class sizes are kept small and students feel a sense of comfort” (p. 15). They claimed that a more intimate environment can allow for trust-building to occur, which promotes more willingness to risk speaking aloud despite a lack of confidence. Moreover, Lynch (2003) stressed that “the needs of heritage learners are best and most appropriately served by discourse-level activities” (p. 42). Importantly, a live, one-on-one environment also fosters more ample real-time speaking opportunities in the target language. A positive experience overall has the potential to bolster learners’ confidence in their communication skills with their communities in and outside of the classroom.
-Jesse Abing, PhD, Chief Learning Officer at Lingo Live
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