Are Heritage Speakers Still Native Speakers of a Language?
Do you know what heritage speakers are? Spanish teachers (especially in the U.S.) have a wide range of language learner types among their students.
So, it helps to define them and understand the difference between heritage speakers vs native speakers vs second language (or world language) learners.
Essentially, these are terms that define various linguistic backgrounds and types of education. One term is not better or worse than another, they’re simply different.
According to this article on Native Speakers vs Heritage Speakers, the labels “effectively define the different starting points, and showcase for the teacher which areas a particular student will need tutelage, in order to grow them as communicators in the target language.”
Keep reading to compare and contrast these differentiated terms to better assess your students’ abilities as a Spanish teacher!
What Is a Heritage Speaker?
Heritage speakers, or heritage language learners (HLLs), are the children of immigrants born in the host country or immigrant children who arrived in the host country during their childhood.
They’ve learned a language from their family that differs from the primary language spoken in the country where they live.
Heritage language speakers belong to a specific ethno-cultural community that links their cultural and linguistic heritage.
According to Van Deusen Scholl, heritage speakers “have been raised with a strong cultural connection to a particular language through family interaction.” In other words, they’re language learners with a heritage-related motivation.
Moreover, a heritage speaker receives educational instruction in a different language than they hear at home. Language shyness is a major obstacle for heritage learners.
Many US-born Latinos are told that their Spanish is inadequate, incorrect, too informal, or simply “Spanglish.” These perspectives are connected to racial hierarchies that promote language abandonment and assimilation.
Are heritage speakers still native speakers of Spanish? The short answer is no. Keep reading for the long answer.
See also: How “Native” Are Heritage Speakers? (PDF)
The Spectrum of Spanish Heritage Speakers
In the context of this article, the heritage language is Spanish. Spanish heritage speakers range greatly in their language proficiency.
In regard to heritage speakers and bilingualism, they may be “early bilinguals” if they’re exposed to both the heritage language and the majority language since birth or early childhood.
They may be “simultaneous bilinguals” who grow up speaking both the majority and the heritage language. Still others may have been monolingual until starting school in the majority language and becoming bilingual at age 5 or 6.
While a heritage speaker may speak the language easily and fluidly, they may not have learned the language to its full capacity. They may be comfortable with everyday conversation but lack subject-specific vocabulary.
It’s important to remember that fluency does not necessarily equal proficiency in all contexts.
Compared to native speakers, most heritage speakers have fewer sources of language input. They typically learn Spanish from family members as opposed to in school.
The heritage speaker likely gained more confidence with the majority language (that is, English) because they use it more frequently in their day-to-day communication.
Hand-picked for you: Looking Into Bilingualism Through the Heritage Speaker’s Mind
What Is a Native Speaker?
Although the definition of native Spanish speakers is elusive, linguists do agree on a few things. Native speakers learn the language from their family—and this language is also the primary language of the place where they live. It is the dominant language for work, school, and all community activities.
In short, a native speaker of Spanish is a student who has grown up in a Spanish-speaking country, speaks Spanish at home, and has usually had at least some schooling in Spanish.
Native speakers are exposed to the language from birth and grow up speaking the language. Typical native speakers have “native” pronunciation and a large vocabulary. They speak in grammatically correct sentences and recognize multiple interpretations of words and sentences.
Native speakers have abstract and stable knowledge of their language that allows them to communicate effectively in their language.
In the United States, most native Spanish speakers in the classroom are recent immigrants. They often have little to no English proficiency upon arrival.
Exploring the Spectrum of Language Acquisition
Now that you understand the difference between heritage speakers and native speakers, let’s discuss the third type of Spanish student.
Students learning a second language who have not had exposure to it in the familial context are known as second language (L2) learners or world language learners. While they may have relatives who speak Spanish, these students have little to no comprehension of Spanish.
They learn the target language on their own through formal classes, not from family members.
No matter what type of students are in your class, the key is to accurately assess their current Spanish ability level.
Assessing Student Ability
Proficiency assessments measure the student’s ability to use a language to accomplish specific tasks regardless of how, where, or when they learned the language. They’re different from achievement tests, which measure specific knowledge and a student’s ability to use language in the classroom.
Instead, a proficiency test targets what an individual can do with what they know. A language proficiency test is a way to evaluate how well a person uses language to communicate in real-life situations.
What Are the Elements of This Assessment?
Language assessments measure an individual’s ability to repeat language elements that they’ve learned and mastered. They test your reading, listening, speaking, and writing skills.
Proficiency assessments measure your ability to use language in real-world situations.
Teachers typically assess proficiency at the beginning of the school year. This summative assessment measures the ability to use all the skills that students have learned.
Proficiency assessments need to cover unplanned topics that are appropriate for a learner’s level.
For example, a proficiency assessment that questions a beginning learner about personal preferences would be appropriate. A more advanced conversation about education would fit with an intermediate student.
The key is to prompt the learner to use the language that they’ve learned in a way that emulates real world conversation. In this way, teachers can identify the student’s strengths and limitations.
This assessment data helps teachers improve their student-centered lessons.
Tips for Teaching Spanish Heritage Speakers
Due to the boom in the Hispanic/Latinx community in the U.S., language educators now need to effectively serve the growing heritage language learner population. Many educators are therefore developing courses to serve Spanish heritage speakers.
Heritage speakers are a diverse group, in terms of language proficiency and ethnicity, as well as self-esteem and self-perception, which are frequently negative. Here are a few suggestions for teachers of heritage speakers.
- Focus on the students and their relationship with the language, rather than on the language and its grammatical rules
- Create safe spaces centered on the learners’ needs to foster a sense of belonging
- Identifying students’ areas of strength, areas to develop, interests, experiences, and attitudes toward their language and culture.
- Give an assignment where students discuss their language experience and language goals
- Embrace variation as a natural, intrinsic, and beautiful aspect of the Spanish language
More Teacher Resources
With all the types and levels of students in your Spanish classroom, independent reading becomes a crucial part of the curriculum.
By offering a wide range of reading material in the classroom, you cater to your students’ varying levels of Spanish mastery.
Be sure to check out these handy resources for Spanish educators:
- National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA
- Characteristics of the Perfect Spanish Teacher
- 50+ Spanish Teaching Resources for Motivated Educators
- Daily Classroom Routines for Teaching Spanish
- 20 Spanish Teacher Blogs That Will Enhance Your Lesson Plans
- Which Pre-Teaching Strategies Work Best for Students Learning Spanish?
Teach All Language Learners More Effectively
Currently, Spanish ranks among the top five most commonly spoken languages in the world. By gaining fluency in Spanish, your students will be able to communicate more easily with those around them.
They’re likely to encounter people who speak Spanish at school, on the playground, and throughout the community. With even a basic understanding, they can start and carry conversations that enrich their lives.
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