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One could say that a classroom of “heritage learners” is full of swans mistaken for ugly ducklings.

The term “heritage learners” is defined as people whose proficiency or knowledge of a language (and culture) comes from their community or family. Instructors often see students in this category as culturally fluent, good at listening and speaking — but also as struggling readers and impossible writers.

After teaching such classes, I started my course last semester by asking a group to assess their own Spanish: What is your level of the language from one to 10, and why? The heritage students gave themselves low grades, with about half scoring themselves as a five.

Here’s the key obstacle for students who are sent to learn Spanish when they already hear it at home: linguistic self-esteem.

The ideologies behind their explanations were as follows: “I cannot speak it because I only use it at home,” or “My Spanish is bad because I am Dominican.” Their narratives frequently involved many characters: “My mom says I speak broken Spanish.” And: “At church, they say I don’t speak good Spanish.”

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Here’s the paradox of these scenes: Students recurrently complain about their bad Spanish, citing family, friends and previous teachers, successfully communicating this concern — in Spanish. People around them — their context — have shaped the idea of their linguistic abilities and damaged their linguistic self-confidence.

Here’s the paradox of these scenes: Students recurrently complain about their bad Spanish, citing family, friends and previous teachers,  successfully communicating this concern — in Spanish.

That’s why the main challenge in these classrooms is not to teach subject-verb agreement or subordinate clauses.

Even harder than teaching grammar is bridging the students’ perceived gap between the Spanish language as an imaginary construct, idealized in its rigid normativity attached to prestige, and their own Spanish that they use to communicate successfully in their daily lives.

Related: Universities try to catch up to their growing Latinx populations

While I continue to try to make sense of my own practice, here are some useful ways to tackle these issues in a classroom full of would-be swans:

  1. Highlight all of the advantages of being heritage learners. Their pronunciation and speaking intuitions are usually unbeatable, as is their cultural competency. They understand what you say in Spanish from Day One!
  2. Honor the Spanish they have, without lying to them. (They are not stupid: They know when teachers are patronizing.) Understand that each language register serves a different purpose and is perfect for its context; these classes help expand the context in which Spanish can serve them.
  3. Discuss the idea of prestige, showing the ideological mechanisms that make it work. Social, historical and economic reasons that lie behind linguistic prestige illuminate how we feel about accents today.
  4. Show different kinds of Spanish in action. More often than not, students are surprised to encounter peer-reviewed articles in their fields in Spanish, and to find published short stories in Spanglish.
  5. Assign longer readings and more challenging writing activities. These students are used to reading lengthy texts for almost every class they take in English, and writing about those. Why assign the same students half-page articles or “true/false” and fill-in-the-blank activities, as so many textbooks for heritage learners do? Only to deny their interests (frequently imposing crystallized stereotypes) and their intelligence.
  6. Turn their attention to their peers, too. Help them recognize classmates as part of a community of peers rather than as a competitive environment in which they can lose.

Instead of encouraging a context of sameness, we need to acknowledge and celebrate difference as essential in a heterogeneous classroom.

Our job is to help create favorable conditions so that students see their own images, without the negative perspectives that others often impose, and finally find in the clear stream a stunning, confident swan.

This story about Spanish heritage learners was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

María Julia Rossi is an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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