Teaching Spanish as a heritage language for the first time: Ten suggestions

PAEC Briefs,

Authors: Diego Pascual y Cabo & Damián Vergara Wilson

The boom in the Hispanic/Latinx community recorded in the latest census has impacted Spanish departments throughout the US and has served as a twofold wake up call to language educators: we need to effectively serve the growing Spanish heritage language (SHL) learner population and traditional foreign language (FL) teaching orientations do not maximally achieve this end. Consequently, many educators are being asked to develop courses to serve Spanish heritage speakers (HSs), whom we identify here as learners who come from communities where Spanish has traditionally been a communal language, but that may be experiencing a shift toward English.

Even for experienced language educators, teaching a brand-new class can be a major adjustment. The job may be even more of an adjustment if the new class is one for HSs. In such cases, the task also comes with a number of added challenges (and opportunities) that stem from the complexities associated with the unique socio-political and socio-linguistic realities surrounding HSs and their communities. HSs comprise a very heterogeneous group, not just in terms of language proficiency and ethnic affiliation, but also in terms of self-esteem and self-perception, which are frequently negative (e.g., Beaudrie, Ducar, and Potowski 2014). Because such feelings and their root causes tend to surface in individual attitudes and behaviors, such as commitment, engagement and achievement, it is important that we as educators have an understanding of students’ experiences in order to best serve them. Unlike their FL peers, most HS will come from a specific speech community that speaks a specific variety of Spanish in which there are likely translingual practices where speakers interweave elements of two languages into a single conversation (Wilson and Pascual y Cabo 2019). Unfortunately, adequate professional development to meet their needs is seldom a part of teacher training. With this in mind, the main question that we address in this essay is: “What are some suggestions that can be help you succeed as you get ready to teach your first Spanish heritage language classes?”

Here we provide some suggestions to help make your foray into SHL education a success based on important lessons that, in consultation with other experienced practitioners, we have learned along the way. Although we focus on SHL, many of these suggestions will be applicable to teaching other heritage languages.

  1. DEVELOP YOUR CRITICAL VISION. Before planning your first SHL class, we recommend that you develop your vision as an educator and articulate critical course goals. By critical we do not mean negative or skeptical, but rather goals (and ways to achieve these goals) that encourage students to reflect and weigh in upon societal power structures.  As you reflect on your own ideas and explore your attitudes towards the task that lies ahead of you, think about your role not just as an educator, but as a collaborator who nurtures critical tools that will enable each one of your students to better understand who they are socially, linguistically, and culturally. We encourage you to develop course goals that will foster critical language awareness and that will ultimately serve as a catalyst for change within our communities. By critical language awareness, we refer to an examination of the relationship between the heritage language and the broader society, which sometimes marginalizes the Spanish language and its speakers.  We must remember that many US-born Latinos abandon Spanish because they receive the message that their skills are inadequate or the variety of Spanish they speak is incorrect, overly informal, undesirable, or simply “Spanglish”.  Said perspectives are inherently connected to racial hierarchies that promote language abandonment and assimilation. Taken one step further, language loss is a type of social injustice and language maintenance represents a step in resisting it. This type of forethought is not always easy, but it is essential for effective SHL teaching and learning. Once you have this critical approach in place, it will become easier to make decisions regarding curriculum design, instructional practices, and assessment.
  2. STUDENTS FIRST! To be successful, the emphasis should be NOT on the language, but on the students (and on their relationship with the language). For SHL learners to thrive in the language classroom in a way that transcends temporarily acquired knowledge of how to use accent marks or how to identify the apodosis in conditional sentences, for example, we ought to create safe spaces that focus on the learners’ socioaffective needs, that foster a sense of belonging, and that represent a way of personal investment. To this end, get to know your students early on! Focus on identifying not only their areas of strength and areas to develop, but also their interests, their experiences, and their attitudes towards their language and culture. We suggest an assignment in which students discuss their language experience and language goals. You might find that many of them already have substantial critical language awareness. Focusing on your students, knowing what they bring to the class and what they want to get from it will be key for your and their overall success. As we see it, strengthening their connection with the HL will be far more meaningful in the long run than focusing exclusively on verb tenses or drills. Given the heterogeneity that characterizes this group of students, they will likely differ substantially from semester to semester, so be prepared to adapt. Once you know your students and understand their needs and desires, modify the curriculum to fit them instead of trying to fit your students into a one-fits-all class that may disregard some of their own experiences with the language.
  3. CHALLENGE THE SAFE AND FAMILIAR. One of the biggest overall challenges faced by teachers—especially new ones—is in fostering an understanding of what SHL teaching is all about. This is especially difficult if the teacher depends primarily on FL teaching methods and orientations, or brings in FL-oriented materials for their students to work on. For example, it is not uncommon for some instructors to fall back on prescriptivist orientations toward the students (e.g., ‘fuistes is wrong, fuiste is right’[1]). Or, some teachers may use decontextualized drills and fill-in-the-blank worksheets for class activities instead of using task-based or communicative approaches. FL and HL teaching overlap, of course, in many ways. Effective activities for one group might translate into effective activities for another, but without a clear vision, less experienced teachers might not know how to manage this overlap. We have found that many elements of Communicative Language Teaching, for example, are effective in the SHL classroom. Class time should be spent on activities that cannot be achieved without the learning community. We especially find that task-based class activities allow students to draw upon their linguistic resources and use them to engage in meaningful exchanges of information. The SHL learner’s grounding in a community of practice allows for the implementation of even richer and more authentic activities than the task-based teaching seen in the FL classroom. For example, a task that aims to increase the beginning SHL learners’ ability to express future could ask the students to plan a shopping trip for a cultural event chosen by the students, such as a quinceañera.
  4. RECOGNIZE NON-LINEAR ACQUISITION. All language classes share the goal of increasing the linguistic capabilities of their learning communities. However, the pathway to increasing linguistic capabilities can be different for students who come from speech communities in which the target language is spoken as a minoritized language. SHL learners do not learn in a linear fashion that is frequently presented in curricula designed to FL learners, especially in regards to what they learn in the community. For example, we have found that even beginning-level SHL learners will have considerable receptive skills, enabling them to understand most spoken Spanish, and will readily produce interactional forms such as vente pa’ca ‘come here’, or siéntate ‘sit down’. More advanced students may have firm command of aspectual distinction (preterit vs. imperfect) and many common irregular verb forms, yet lack usage of subjunctive forms in some instances where monolingual Spanish speakers would use it. We recommend approaching lesson planning by including ways to find out what the students can do with the language and avoiding the temptation to prioritize explicit grammar instruction over contextualized task-based exercises.
  5. FOCUS ON WHAT YOUR STUDENTS CAN DO. This point is connected to many of the other points here but is worth reiterating. Instead of focusing on all that your HL learners cannot do, focus on all that they CAN do: nurture a sense of ownership, expertise and value of the heritage language in your students. Recognize that they will have a great deal of cultural competency, a competency many FL peers may struggle to reach. Our goal as educators is to explore ways of developing opportunities for our students to realize that they can do a lot with a language that already belongs to them; that is, providing them with opportunities to mobilize expert identities vis-á-vis their heritage language. By viewing the metaphorical cup as half full instead of half empty, we raise motivation. Although it may sound a bit cliché, when it comes to linguistic performance, motivation goes a long way for learners, or at least puts them on the right path to language development. According to a recent study, willingness to communicate and motivation to learn and use the language are the factors that most predict ultimate language attainment and linguistic performance on tasks that require literacy skills, more so than years of formal language study (Torres, Estremera, & Mohamed, 2019). In light of these findings, we recommend that language educators foster learners' imagination to view their future selves as ‘legitimate’ and proficient users of the heritage language.
  6. COMMUNITY DISCOURSE MATTERS. One way to address issues of non-linear acquisition is to prioritize participation in community discourse. We believe that SHL learners should be most capable and confident at the types of language usage that is most common in their daily lives. This means, for example, that while we may want them to use the subjunctive to describe unspecified referents in nominal subordinate clauses, they should also be able to gossip with their dad, talk about soccer with their mom, engage in family narratives with their grandparents, and use Spanish to get closer to their local communities. By viewing themselves as legitimate speakers of the heritage language, SHL students avail themselves to rich language experiences around them.  Ultimately, we want them to be able to successfully participate in the world of discourse around them and then move into more abstract and formal registers of language usage after that. Along the way, we should create spaces where our students can feel as though they are language and community experts with rich experiences. There are endless possibilities in which students can turn to their communities to gather ethnographic or sociolinguistic information and present the findings to the class. One example is to collect and share narratives about supernatural figures like La llorona or El cucuy, two mythical beings that are part of many childhood stories. More exposure to the language through community, school and media means more reinforcement of what the students know and provides encounters with less frequent parts of the language, perhaps even the subjunctive.  
  7. THINK LOCAL, THINK COMMUNITY. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one language, dialect, choice of words or expression that is inherently superior to another. And the linguistic choices related to SHL in the context of the United States are definitely not exceptions to this rule. In fact, what SHL learners do reflects what speakers do in their local communities, which are comprised of diverse speakers of Spanish. One must bear in mind that our concepts of correct and appropriate language are socially constructed and institutionally determined; they are not in any way dictated by language structure per se. As such, teachers should be aware of and help students see the value of their own varieties. Importantly, they should also foster and encourage active reengagement with their speech communities, which have likely been marginalized. Many SHL learners have experienced firsthand the process of language abandonment and feel very deficient because of this, sometimes on a very isolating emotional and personal level (e.g., Carreira & Beeman, 2014). Therefore, part of developing HL capabilities is to raise critical language awareness of the HL speech community's positioning in society. We do so by asking students to examine questions that demystify oppressive language practices on a societal level such as: Who values and/or devalues the language variety of my speech community? What prestige does my variety hold in comparison to English? How did the current sociolinguistic situation come about? Why would dominant societal forces encourage HL abandonment? Does language abandonment, and the consequential rampant monolingualism help raise the socioeconomic status of HL communities? What are the institutions and who are the players that encourage language abandonment? What attitudes does the local community hold toward the HL and why? These are just a few questions and we encourage practitioners to send their students into the community to find and share answers. While advanced students may carry out this type of engagement in the heritage language, beginners might do so in their dominant language. 
  8. CELEBRATE VARIATION. Variation is not only natural, it is an intrinsic part of the human language, and it is beautiful. As educators, our own attitudes regarding our students’ linguistic varieties make important contributions to their own experiences and their reactions towards their language. Our students can feel empowered not only by how similar (or different) our own varieties are from theirs, but also by how we conceive of/talk about/regard their varieties. It is crucial we celebrate all varieties alike, especially as we—language educators—inadvertently hold a position of power in the classroom. One simple activity that legitimizes variation is to have students collect terminology by showing selected images to community members in order to elicit all of the different names that a certain object may have. For example, showing an image of a turkey in the Southwestern US will elicit terms such as, pavo, cócono, guajolote and torque among others. If we validate the documented variation, the project will help to dispel the notion that there is only one correct word for something.
  9. EMBRACE BILINGUALISM. Even with (socio)linguistic training, we as educators may forget that translingual practices, such as weaving English and Spanish into the same conversation, are not problems or signs of inferior language development, but rather normal linguistic behavior among bilingual speakers all over the world. Yes, we are in a language class and yes, learning Spanish should be a principal goal. However, strict adherence to the “standard monolingual variety” (which is what typically appears in textbooks) as a benchmark for determining what is “right or wrong” only serves to highlight a comparative fallacy that has become entrenched in society, and tends to make most HSs feel all the more insecure about their naturalistic abilities to communicate in the HL. One approach is to give spaces for students to engage in these translingual practices in the class, deploying both of their languages. Instead of censuring them, we might highlight the concepts of audience, purpose and language choice (and its social consequences), allowing them to make informed decisions depending on whether they are writing for bilingual or monolingual audiences. After all, an SHL student might sustain a conversation in Spanish with their grandparent, engage in translingual practices when texting their siblings, and then attend classes delivered in English. Translingual practices are dynamic and represent a discursive mode in which bilinguals make use of all their resources.
  10. SEEK OUT TRAINING AND SUPPORT. Engaged educators never stop learning and are always looking for ways to improve their teaching (and the learning of their students). So, if you’ve not yet had the opportunity to learn about general principles of heritage language teaching and learning, please know that there is a wealth of resources and support available to you, including a number of organizations and special interests. An excellent starting point is the website of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA (https://nhlrc.ucla.edu/nhlrc/home). In addition to conferences and research institutes, they organize professional development initiatives for educators such as on-campus and online workshops. The Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning site (http://www.coerll.utexas.edu/coerll/) has links to an array of pedagogical materials. As for Spanish in particular, a great resource is the National Symposium on Spanish as a Heritage Language (NSSHL), a yearly conference that brings together researchers and educators to network and to share their experiences. With high quality conference presentations and workshops on a wide variety of topics, the NSSHL organization promises to be a stalwart of SHL for years to come.

Clearly, the list of recommendations we provide here is by no means exhaustive, nor is it fixed, but it is intended to help the language educator understand the dynamics and complexities associated with their new responsibilities. As we see it, it is the combination of knowledge arrived at from these different recommendations that will allow all of us to more effectively serve our Spanish heritage language learners.


Beaudrie, S. M., C. Ducar, & K. Potowski. (2014). Heritage Language Teaching : Research and Practice. New York, NY: McGraw-
     Hill Education Create.

Carreira, M. & T. Beeman. (2014). Voces: Latino students on life in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Torres, J., R. Estremera, & S. Mohamed. (2019). The Contribution of psychosocial and biographical variables to heritage
     language learners’ linguistic knowledge of Spanish. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-25. DOI: https://doi.org

Wilson, D. V. & D. Pascual y Cabo. (2019). Linguistic diversity and student voice: the case of Spanish as a heritage language.
     Journal of Spanish Language Teaching. DOI: 10.1080/23247797.2019.1681639

About the authors:

Diego Pascual y Cabo is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Linguistics and Director of the Spanish Heritage Language Program at the University of Florida. His primary research interest is heritage speaker bilingualism, which he examines from both theoretical and applied perspectives. His work on this topic has appeared in journals such as Applied Linguistics, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, and Heritage Language Journal (among others). Diego can be reached at dpascual@ufl.edu.



Damián Vergara Wilson is Associate Professor and director of the Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL) program in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of New Mexico. As a former student of this SHL program many years ago, he is passionate about conducting scholarship on SHL learners and has published on language attitudes, perceptions of the SHL learning experience and innovative pedagogical approaches. Damián can be reached at damianvw@unm.edu.








[1] Both fuiste and fuistes are from the verb ir ‘to go’ and translate as ‘you went’. Fuiste is the normative version while fuistes is not normative, although common in speech.