ERIC Identifier: ED469208
Publication Date: 2002-10-00
Author: Hancock, Zennia
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Heritage Spanish Speakers' Language Learning Strategies. ERIC
The learning strategies of language learners have been researched
extensively. (See, e.g., Brown, 2000; Oxford, 1990; Rubin & Thompson, 1982;
Shipman & Shipman, 1985; Stevick, 1976). This research focuses on
English-speaking students learning a foreign language and on non-English
speakers learning English. To date, there have been no published studies on the
use of language learning strategies by heritage Spanish speakers studying
Spanish. Research is needed on this unique and growing student population so
that educators can learn how to work more effectively with them.
This digest describes some of the issues involved in the Spanish language
learning experiences of heritage Spanish speakers, the largest population of
heritage language speakers in the United States. It describes ways in which
educators can facilitate these students' language development through a better
understanding of their language learning strategies and suggests areas in which
further research is needed.
HERITAGE SPANISH SPEAKERS IN LANGUAGE
Spanish-speaking students have been referred to as "native speakers,
quasi-native speakers, residual speakers, bilingual speakers, and
home-background speakers" (Valdes 1997, p. 13). Those who study Spanish in
school often come to formal education with skills in comprehension and
conversation, but the literacy skills of this population vary widely, ranging
from extremely fluent to receptive to only partially receptive (Valdes, 1997).
The degree of oral Spanish proficiency also varies widely among these students,
ranging from native proficiency to what Bills has called "disfluency" (1997, p.
Traditionally, heritage Spanish speakers have been placed in Spanish classes
with English speakers learning Spanish as a second language. This can be
problematic. Other students may resent the heritage speakers' native-like
familiarity with oral language and the appearance that the Spanish speakers are
studying "a language they already know" (Peyton, Lewelling, & Winke, 2001,
p. 1). At the same time, while the Spanish speakers may be able to discuss
day-to-day topics related to home and community, they may have difficulty
communicating about more complex topics, such as politics, literature, or
careers, and with the mechanics of Spanish writing, such as spelling, syntax,
and use of accents. This situation is challenging for heritage Spanish speakers
and potentially frustrating for other students. "Neither the Spanish language
needs nor the abilities of either group can be duly or successfully addressed"
(Peale, 1991, p. 448). Increasingly, researchers and educators realize that
these students need courses tailored to their specific needs (Bills, 1997).
SOMR FACTORS TO CONSIDER
A number of factors affect the
language learning of heritage Spanish speakers.
"Varieties of Spanish". The belief that some dialects of Spanish are inferior
to a standard or widely accepted form of the language can manifest itself in the
attitudes of the teacher, other students, and even the speakers of those
dialects. Spanish speakers who encounter negative attitudes toward their
dialects in the Spanish class may become embarrassed and reluctant to
participate for fear of ridicule or correction. Some Latino students in
university Spanish classes have claimed that because they spoke non-standard
dialects of Spanish, their teachers gave them lower grades (Villa, 1996).
"Cultural Connections." As dialects vary, so do cultures. Previous studies
have shown positive correlations between learning styles and ethnic background
(e.g., Vasquez, 1990). For example, some researchers have found that Latino
students learn particularly well in groups rather than by themselves (Griggs
& Dunn, 1996). According to Oxford (1990), "Hispanics seem to use social
strategies more than do some other ethnic groups" (p. 13). Research on the
sensory dimension of learning styles has shown that Latino students are
"frequently auditory" learners (Oxford, 2001, p. 360). While generalizations
like these about cultural groups need to be treated with caution, learning style
preferences such as preference for group or individual work do need to be
considered in designing instruction.
"Nonnative Spanish Teachers." Many Spanish courses are taught by nonnative
speakers of Spanish. Heritage Spanish speakers may not identify with or respect
as a Spanish teacher someone whose native language is not Spanish. Brown's
(2000) research suggests that empathy--the capacity to relate emotionally to
someone else--may contribute to the success of language learners. If Latinos
cannot relate emotionally to Anglo teachers (or to Spanish-speaking teachers
from a different country or region than the one they associate with), their
academic success may be affected.
To address the issues described
above, researchers have suggested the following guidelines for teaching heritage
Learn about and show respect for different cultures and dialects. Highlight
vocabulary choices and grammatical structures for different contexts and
purposes rather than prescribing specific rules for all occasions. Speak, for
example, of Southwest, Puerto Rican, or Cuban Spanish rather than formal and
informal Spanish (Villa, 1996).
* Base courses on topics that have cultural appeal to heritage Spanish speakers
Observe student behavior in the classroom and identify whether students benefit
most from group or individual work, oral or written language exercises, and so
forth (Vasquez, 1990).
When designing courses, include writing activities (including spelling,
self-editing, transcribing, translating, and journaling), contrastive analysis
(activities to explore and acknowledge a variety of dialects), culture (projects
involving research beyond the classroom), and oral skills (class discussions and
community work) (Aparicio, 1983, pp. 236-237).
These suggestions focus on how teachers can teach better rather than on how
students can take responsibility for their learning. However, teachers can help
students identify their learning habits, preferences, and skills in order to
help themselves. One way to do this is to make students aware of their own
particular language learning strategies.
LANGUAGE LEARNING STRATEGIES
Oxford (2001) presents six
categories of language learning strategies: cognitive, metacognitive,
memory-related, compensatory, affective, and social (p. 359). They can be
summarized as follows:
practicing and repeating new words; deductive reasoning, translating, analyzing;
taking notes, highlighting, summarizing
paying attention, organizing, setting goals and objectives, evaluating one's own
creating mental linkages, such as grouping and placing words in context;
applying images and sounds to represent things in memory; structured reviewing;
using mechanical techniques, such as physical response
selecting a topic for discussion based on one's knowledge of the language and
shaping the discussion to avoid unknown vocabulary, guessing at words based on
context, using gestures and coining words to communicate
using music or laughter as part of the learning process, rewarding oneself,
making positive statements about one's own progress, discussing feelings
seeking correction, asking for clarification, working with peers, developing
cultural understanding (Oxford 2001, pp. 363-365).
Some strategies are guided by exterior influences--teachers, activities,
interactions--and others relate to the student's personality, motivation, and
knowledge about how to learn.
Oxford's 1990 publication, Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher
Should Know, is designed to make teachers and students aware of language
learning strategies and the various ways they can be used to facilitate language
learning. In one section of the text, Oxford gives 19 different scenarios
describing language learners with specific goals. The reader is to identify
which language learning strategies could be used to accomplish the goals. For
You are an English-speaking high school student learning Italian. You have a
good sense of humor and enjoy jokes and cartoons. You decide to buy an Italian
cookbook. It is about 100 pages long, full of cartoons. You want to read the
book, understand the cartoons, and explain some of the cartoons to your friends
who do not know Italian at all. Which language learning strategies do you need
to use? (Oxford, 1990, p. 33).
For the above scenario, readers might identify the following strategies that
could be used:
Analyze the language of the text (see how the cartoons convey humor)
Set goals (decide how much to learn on your own and when to show the book to
Place words in context (certain vocabulary will be used for cooking)
Select which recipes or cartoons to focus on
Use laughter (understand language through the cartoons)
Cooperate with peers (include your friends in your learning process)
This activity can be used to teach awareness of language learning strategies
and ways to use them.
LANGUAGE LEARNING STRATEGIES AND HERITAGE SPANISH
While the scenarios in Oxford's book are useful to foreign language
and ESL teachers and students, none of them involves students learning their own
language. Heritage Spanish speakers might work with scenarios such as the
You are a high school student living in New York City with your parents, who
are from Puerto Rico. They speak Spanish with you all the time, but you speak to
them in English. You are getting ready to leave home to attend college, where
you want to study advertising. You also want to study Spanish, because you
realize that employers value bilingual employees. You want to practice reading
and writing before you leave for college. Which language learning strategies
could you use to prepare yourself for college Spanish?
You are a student at the University of Maryland. You grew up speaking Spanish
with your Salvadoran parents, but you want to improve your Spanish writing
skills. You have a chance to do this when your grandmother, who has recently
come to the United States from El Salvador to live with your family, asks you to
help her write down her childhood memories for you and her other grandchildren.
Which language learning strategies could you use for this project?
As well as listing the language learning strategies that would be useful in
these scenarios, heritage Spanish speakers may also develop their own scenarios
and exchange them with other students. Scenarios might include issues such as
dialectical varieties of Spanish (and the desire or need to learn the prestige
variety), expansion of vocabulary knowledge, and the pressures associated with
achieving improved literacy in one's native language. The aim is to increase
students' awareness of the social issues involved in learning their own
language, teach them how to identify and take advantage of the learning
strategies they are comfortable with, and expose them to new strategies to
enhance their learning.
There is a need for research and practice
focused on the language learning strategies of heritage Spanish speakers.
Projects that need to be undertaken include the development of language learning
scenarios for heritage Spanish speakers, such as the ones presented in this
digest; and development of a language learning strategy inventory specifically
for heritage Spanish speakers, patterned after Oxford's (1990) inventories for
English language learners and for English speakers learning other languages.
Researchers need to ascertain whether a certain set of optimal learning
conditions may apply specifically to heritage Spanish speakers. Solid research
in this area may help teachers better serve Spanish-speaking students in their
classes by teaching them how to become aware of and responsible for their own
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