Becoming a Heritage Language Teacher: A Journey Well Worth Taking

By Alegría Ribadeneira – CSU Pueblo

I was trained as a second language teacher, and honestly, not much at that. Unlike my K-12 colleagues who had to take classes like teaching methods, educational psychology, and technology in teaching, my pedagogical training as an MA and PhD in Literature was minimal and also incongruent with what I encountered once I became a professor at a regional comprehensive institution. I want to make clear that I went to a great university (Go Gators!), and I am thankful for all I learned during those wonderful six years. The fact that I was not prepared for a job as a professor had more to do with the larger ideological system that governed (perhaps still governs?) graduate studies.[1]

I was lucky to have a good mentor early in my career. Before my first semester of teaching was over, my mentor sent me for training as an ACTFL OPI tester, and the experience was life changing. The moment I understood language proficiency levels[2], I realized that our profession’s obsession with grammar over proficiency was hurting our students. It became clear that we should not be focused on what students know about the language but what they can actually do with the language. It also became clear that any course or life experience in a language was part of a continuum that builds proficiency no matter a person’s level, or even if theirs is a first, second, or heritage language.

During my second semester as a professor I read the 2007 MLA report, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World”[3], and that report indeed changed my world. The report pointed out that the approach to teaching language through the two-tiered system of language and literature was not only outdated but completely misguided for our times. The report called for a whole new vision for teaching languages, which included the urgent need to evolve and create a broader and more coherent curriculum that included interdisciplinary courses. The idea of offering non literature courses seemed sacrilegious to me back then, but I knew that for most of my students, whose main goal was to become more proficient, it would be a welcomed approach.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my experiences with ACTFL and the MLA report had laid the foundation for me to become a heritage language teacher. In my second year I stepped up as director of the World Languages Program at my university. Though strongly passionate about the work, I promptly recognized that I would need more preparation if I was to guide the program toward success. The biggest weakness I recognized in the program, and in myself, was our lack of understanding on how to teach Heritage Language Learners.

 My institution is a Hispanic Serving Institution and HLLs of Spanish were part of our classrooms. One of my colleagues, a language purist and grammarian, described them to me as “disasters” who “had no remedy,” and told me to not bother. This comment only made me want to understand and help them more. From conversations with my HL students I learned that many of them, throughout their lives, had been treated as less than by their own teachers and even family members. Language shaming is so very real and it comes in many forms. HLLs suffer it because most people think of them as “native” speakers, and this carries expectations of how they should speak or even act.

 I started devouring all the research in HL teaching. While much of it helped me understand the challenges, most of it did not give me specific tools or pedagogical approaches for the classroom. One of my happiest days came when I learned about the National Heritage Language Resource Center[4] (NHLRC), their open and free online workshop[5], and their summer workshop[6] in UCLA. I applied to the summer workshop and was accepted. After the most amazing one-week experience, I knew I had found my academic family, and my life’s purpose. I since have returned to the workshop every year for the past ten years, first as a faculty mentor to incoming attendees, and now as a lead instructor.  

My training in HL teaching helped transform my program and the lives of my students. It was not easy at first. Innovating a program and breaking old patterns can be a challenge, and there can be a lot of resistance, but it was more than worth it.[7] Currently, the Spanish program at my institution is the strongest it has ever been. About 85% of our majors and 65% of our minors are Heritage Language Learners who plan to apply their language skills within a variety of fields such as business, psychology, sociology, social work, law, nursing, and teaching, to name a few. For many of them our HL classes were the foundation of their success.[8] I would like to think we are sending them out into the world confident in their language skills and proud about their bilingualism and biculturalism.

My passion for HL teaching has also allowed me to contribute beyond my university. Besides my involvement with the NHLRC summer program, I now conduct workshops and present at conferences in hopes of reaching other teachers who, like me ten years ago, are desperately looking for help and guidance. I understand most teachers have a million things going on and have no time to read all the research in HL teaching. What most teachers are looking for are practical tools and activities for the classroom, and support for their journey. That is what I try to deliver.[9]

Training to become a heritage language teacher is absolutely crucial if we want to serve HLLs well. Learning about the benefits of content-based, community-based, task-based, and project-based learning is essential. It is also key to understand the need for a differentiated classroom given the heterogeneity HLLs present. Yet perhaps just as critical, or even more so, is understanding and addressing the affective needs of this group. Practices like validating home language, teaching the definition of an HL speaker versus a native speaker, highlighting the gift of language they have received from their families, practicing formative assessment and gentle error correction, creating opportunities to explore issues of identity, and fostering a family-like safe classroom environment are absolutely essential.  

I look back at where I started and I can’t believe my journey so far. I am glad I was able to recognize my lack of knowledge, open up to new ideas, and become comfortable throwing away long-standing beliefs. At times it can be a difficult process, but I am renewed in my journey every time I meet another teacher who is willing to embark on it. I also know there is much more to learn, and I am excited to keep going. I want to help other teachers find their way so all of us together can help our students emerge from our classrooms proficient, empowered and proud. Their success is why becoming a heritage language teacher is a journey well worth taking.

[1] Uwe Hohendahl, Peter. “After Three Decades of Crisis: What Is the Purpose of a PhD Program in Foreign Languages?” PMLA, Vol. 115, No. 5 (Oct., 2000), pp. 1228-1238

[2] ACTFL proficiency guidelines: https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012

[3] MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World,” May 2007, http://www.mla.org/pdf/forlang_news_pdf.pdf

[4] National Heritage Language Resource Center:  https://nhlrc.ucla.edu/nhlrc/home

[5] Teaching Heritage Languages: An online workshop: http://startalk.nhlrc.ucla.edu/Default_startalk.aspx

[6] NHLRC Summer workshop: https://nhlrc.ucla.edu/nhlrc/professional#workshops

[7] Ribadeneira, Alegría and Alejandro Lee. “Adoption, Implementation and Institutionalization of Spanish Heritage Language Programs at two U.S. Regional Comprehensive Universities.”. Handbook on Heritage Language Education: From Innovation to Program Building. Olga Kagan, Maria Carreira, Claire Chik (Eds.). Routledge. 2017: https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Handbook-of-Heritage-Language-Education-From-Innovation/Kagan-Carreira-Hitchens-Chik/p/book/9781138845787

[8] Carreira, María. “Spanish-for-Native-Speaker Matters: Narrowing the Latino Achievement Gap through Spanish Language Instruction.”Heritage Language Journal, v5 n1 p147-171 Sum 2007