Heritage languages form not only a part of their speakers’ linguistic repertoire, but also represent an important element of their cultural and ethnic identity. Yet heritage language speakers are by no means a homogeneous group: They come from diverse backgrounds and they differ in their degree of competence in the heritage language with many never reaching their parents’ or grandparents’ level of fluency. These issues are critical within the field of heritage language research, as a solid linguistic confidence promotes language maintenance and supports the speakers in feeling comfortable within their ethnic community.
Ana Sánchez-Muñoz examined a group of 50 university students, mostly second generation Mexican Americans/Chicanos, who took Spanish heritage language classes in the USA. The courses were specifically designed to meet the needs of heritage language speakers. Unlike second or foreign language classes, in which heritage language speakers often struggle with issues of confidence, these classes include topics such as the complex relationship between language and socio-political structures and identity formation. Sánchez-Muñoz wanted to find out whether the classes had a positive effect on the students’ perception of themselves as Latino Spanish speakers. Two questionnaires (one at the beginning of the academic year and the other at the end) were administered, and interviews were conducted.
At the beginning of the year, there is a close match between students’ perceived language ability and confidence. They appear to find production in the heritage language (speaking and writing) much more challenging than receptive skills (listening and reading). At the end of the year, all students show an increase in both linguistic ability and overall confidence. The clearest improvement can be seen in writing. The students themselves indicate that writing is the main motivation for taking the classes, as they have been least able to develop this skill without formal education in their heritage language.
Speakers expressed shame around the perceived lower status of the heritage language, as well as fear of being mocked by others or of being rejected by their ethnic community due to their lack of linguistic ability. The interviews also indicated, however, a sort of ‘linguistic healing’ following the heritage language courses. Students feel more proficient in Spanish and more prepared to use it in different contexts as they were helped to overcome feelings of shame and inadequacy. Sánchez-Muñoz thereby shows that programs designed for heritage language speakers can have an important impact on language maintenance and on developing a healthy linguistic and ethnic identity.
Sánchez-Muñoz, A. (2016). Heritage language healing? Learners’ attitudes and damage control in heritage language classroom. In Pascual y Cabo, D. (Ed.), Advances in Spanish as a Heritage Language (Studies in Bilingualism 49), 205-218.