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Spanish Heritage Learning: What It Is and How to Teach It


Not all Spanish language students start their journey to acquisition on the same footing. Just as there are students who come into the language fresh with no prior experience, there are countless others who have had some level of prior, and unique, experience in the language. These students are known as Heritage Learners, and in this article we’ll take a look at the unique pedagogical challenges and opportunities that Heritage students can have on their Spanish odysseys. 

Heritage Learners (HLs) are generally defined as foreign language speakers who started acquiring the language as their first language at home, but later shifted away from it at a young age to gain greater proficiency in a second language. As a result, the input and range the student would receive in their first language is drastically diminished in favor of the second language. In other words, one’s potential for language acquisition, or the process by which one learns to perceive and comprehend language, is significantly skirted for HLs. This lack of input and acquisition is key in distinguishing a Heritage learner from a Native Learner, whose first language is also their most proficient due to full acquisition of the language.

Heritage Language learners can be more efficient when it comes to understanding and being understood in a greater variety of contexts, than second language (L2) learners, but at the cost of that deeper academic understanding of language mechanics that L2 students gain. As such, HLs could have a harder time navigating more professional contexts, like applying for jobs or writing formal essays. (Speaking from my own experience, I know that I’ve embarrassed myself in meetings using Norteño (read: from Northern Mexico) phrases like “échale ganas” or “alchile” without batting an eye…)

My own life mirrors the archetypical example of an HL student: I grew up in a Mexican household with parents who would only interact with me in Spanish, in a small border town with a 93% hispanic population. But by the time I was four years old and started going to elementary school, I was quickly revving up to switch to English as my second, but most versatile, language. I listened, read, wrote, and spoke in English all of the time, and my progress in it quickly outran my progress in Spanish, which had become limited to simple interactions with my parents.

So with these unique challenges in understanding specific mechanics befalling HLs, how can we tailor a curriculum to best tend to their needs? Let’s look at the section below!

How can we best teach a heritage learner?

Apparently, not all heritage learners start on equal footing, either. Spanish HLs are often able to read and write with a passable level of proficiency, which is a luxury that Arabic and Chinese HLs, for example, do not normally have. It is thus suggested that Spanish HLs have a great advantage in their ability to comprehend big ideas rather than smaller details and mechanics!

So how can we work this to our advantage when teaching heritage learner students?

Adopt a “Macro Learning” Style

Traditional learning for L2 learners starts with learning the nitty gritty of grammar mechanics and basic vocabulary before tackling analysis of bigger ideas and finally stringing together a holistic understanding of a text. For HL students, we actually want to adopt a macro, or top-down, approach, wherein the student begins their textual analysis by absorbing the big ideas first! This takes advantage of a HL student’s ability to understand a greater variety of contexts in full force, and grants sections they struggle with a greater use for areas of improvement. Although this isn’t too different from the strategy used with upper-level/AP students from most backgrounds, we can use the big picture test as a litmus test for HL learners in contexts where they need more help with grammatical structures or vocabulary for a certain topic. 



Give Students Greater Choice through Project-Based Learning

Since HL learners already have serviceable skills in all facets of the Spanish language, then it will pay off deeply to tailor their curriculum to their needs and goals. Do they want to learn how to utilize more professional language in order to begin a career they’re interested in within a spanish speaking country? Are they longing for a deeper cultural understanding of their ancestry through folklore? Do they (like me) want to simply brush up on their regional slang? You can tailor projects to take advantage of things they’re familiar with and interested in for a greater sense of motivation! 

HL student motivations are commonly characterized by, but not limited to:

  1. Professional aspirations
  2. A need to connect to their identity
  3. A desire to connect with other HL learners

Focus Deeply on Interleaved Practice

Interleaved practice refers to the idea that studying and practice should incorporate a mix of topics, as opposed to more traditional Blocked practice, which is more about going through each specific topic (subjunctive tense, antepenult accent rules, etc.) exhaustively before moving on to the next topic. 

Since HL students already have some understanding of most topics, it is more beneficial for them to engage in exercises that combine multiple topics at once. This allows us teachers to more quickly find the focus spots that HL learners could be lacking in, be it grammar, vocabulary, idioms, or conversation. Oftentimes, creative or interpersonal exercises are best to figure out a student’s pressure points, or points they otherwise rely too heavily on. 

When it comes to Heritage learners students, teachers can find an opportunity to tailor their curriculum to better suit individual needs and goals. Unlike L2 learners or Native learners, HL learners lack complete formal mastery, but also have a reliable foundation of comprehension upon which they can scaffold their understanding. This presents a unique opportunity for learners to kill two birds with one stone: as they work towards a life-affirming goal, they will also gain a stronger grasp on the language they’ve missed out on. 

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