Teaching Spanish to Latinx Youth in the United States 

 Between the Historic Present and the Future Perfect

By María Luisa Parra Velasco

Frustration and concern could be heard clearly in my friend Sara’s voice, “María Luisa, please, I need you to tutor Juan Pablo. He just flunked his Spanish test.” To fail a Spanish test—or any test for that matter—is never an agreeable experience. But it’s even more painful for a 13-year-old Spanish-speaker like Juan Pablo.  How could he have failed the test when he spoke Spanish at home with his mother and with his grandparents in Mexico in the summer, and by phone and by Skype from the United States? The answer is not an easy one: what seems to be an individual problem reflects a current situation with an educational system with a complex history. Bilingual education and Spanish teaching in the United States have not been designed to support the needs and strengths of Latinx children and youth. And while “Sara” and “Juan Pablo” are not the actual names of my friend and her son, the challenge is a real and growing one.

When Sara showed me the test, I realized that Juan Pablo’s failure did not have to do with his knowledge of the language. It was the test format that confused the adolescent.  The exam sought to evaluate the students’ grasp of the future tense. Juan Pablo found himself confronted with a list of disconnected sentences, out of a communicative context, in which students had to fill in blank spaces with the verb tenses of the “simple future of the indicative” or the “informal future.” He read the instructions, but he could not associate the technical names with the specified forms for the two ways of expressing in Spanish that one is going to clean something up: “limpiaré” and “voy a limpiar.” Nevertheless, like any competent speaker, he filled in the blanks with verb tenses that signify the future, although they actually correspond to the present tense, for example, “Mañana limpio mi cuarto”—tomorrow I clean my room. 

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We can take into account that the teacher (a Spanish-speaker herself) taught the terminology in preparation for the exam. But even so, what good did this terminology do in our daily lives as Spanish users (or users of any other language for that matter)?  Which of these terms do we invoke when it’s time to converse, read or write a text? Unless it’s part of a specific professional linguistic or literary analysis, speakers—including linguists and literary critics—don’t use or rarely think about the technical name of the tense they need to formulate and communicate their message.  

A language, with all its possibilities of meaning and expression, is learned through continuous and meaningful interactions with other members of our families and communities.  School also plays a fundamental role in expanding the knowledge and use of the complex structures of language, not only oral, but also and primarily written.  The intricate process of literacy learning by the reader-writer lets us establish distance from the language: we can see it and analyze it there, from afar, on paper. With this distance, we become aware that the language we use is made up of elements and linguistic forms that can be combined in different ways to create a variety of social and cultural meanings. The goal of formal instruction is to teach language, not that the student learns the technical names of tenses, but that he or she learn how to craft different types of speech and written texts to participate actively in the community.

Unfortunately, the professional training of many teachers, as well as the publishing industry specializing in the teaching of foreign languages, still prioritizes learning grammar (and accompanying fill-in-the-blank exercises) as the entryway to language learning.  This way of teaching has been questioned by decades of research on foreign language acquisition, and presents additional challenges for Latinx youth who wish to learn Spanish.

First, as I explained earlier, it does not reflect nor facilitate the acquisition of a language in social and meaningful contexts such as family and community. Second, it conveys the idea that a language has only one “correct” way of being used.  This idea is particularly dangerous because it corresponds to a set of rules generally presented in a textbook, casting aside the diversity of ways in which many Spanish speakers actually express themselves and that are perfectly correct in their diverse communities. 

Finally, it’s forgotten that Spanish is not a foreign language in the United States. Spanish has been spoken in this territory since 1565 with the first settlement of New Spain in San Augustine, Florida. For Latinx youth like Juan Pablo, Spanish is a mother tongue that represents part of his heritage and his cultural and family identity. Because of this, it was no small thing to fail a Spanish exam. Perceiving his reaction of shame, we could tell that Juan Pablo had received a hard blow to his self-esteem and identity as a Spanish user. 

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The experience of Juan Pablo as a Spanish speaker is not insignificant: he is one of the almost 60 million Latinos—with roots in all of Latin America and the Caribbean—who live today in the United States and one of the 41 million Spanish-speaking Latinos (13.4% of the entire U.S. population). Experts in the fields of bilingualism and sociolinguistics use a concept they call “the bilingual continuum,” which refers to the range of command of Spanish and English—spoken and written—that we find in today’s Latinx youth. At both extremes of the continuum, one finds those who speak only one language—on one side, young immigrants recently arrived from Latin America and the Caribbean who know Spanish, but don’t yet speak English, and on the other, the U.S.-born young people of Latinx origin who speak English and don’t use Spanish, although many of them understand it and identify with some aspects of culture of their parents’ or grandparents’ countries of origin. 

According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, more than half of Latinx children older than 5 years old are bilingual in Spanish and English and use both languages in their daily lives in practices known as  translengua o translanguaging. That’s a term used today for what is commonly called—but not always well understood—as “Spanglish.” The use of Spanish is maintained even to the third generation, Nevertheless, in spite of this evidence of the vitality of the language, Spanish is vulnerable to the pressures of assimilation and generally ends up losing in the face of the dominance of English.  

Research in the field of language maintenance and revitalization has shown that, while the family plays a central role in the transmission of this cultural heritage, the school is fundamental to preserving minority languages. Unfortunately, bilingual education programs in the United States and programs of Spanish for Latinos are not only scarce, but often—as in the case of Juan Pablo’s teacher—do not have the necessary pedagogical tools to strengthen the linguistic knowledge of Latinx children and youth. 

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Nowadays, students with roots from all over Latin American and the Caribbean take my university-level Spanish classes: Mexicans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Peruvians, Mexican-Cubans, Mexican-Americans, even a Colombian-German.  Within the bilingual continuum, they all have very different levels of Spanish and reflect the characteristics of vocabulary and pronunciation of dialects they have learned at home. The common denominator is the strong motivation to learn more of the language and, above all, to understand their own identity as Spanish speakers and members of the Latinx community. But the students share something else: the internalized message that they “speak badly” because “they don’t know grammar” and because they use Spanglish, what we technically call translanguaging between Spanish and English. Their insecurity as Spanish users and their doubts about their identity are evident.  

In the face of this reality,  my way of teaching goes considerably beyond grammar technical terms. It requires interdisciplinary work that leads to the understanding of multiple dimensions of Spanish: the variety and geographic extension of dialects; its complex history, dating from Latin and enriched by 800 years of contact with the Arab world and the encounter with the indigenous languages of the Americas; its role as a colonizing force; its status as the most spoken and studied minority language in the United States; and, above all, its future that, according to experts, will be defined in large part in the United States since the Latinx Spanish-speaking community is the second largest Spanish-speaking community in the world after Mexico.   

I’ve found it absolutely necessary to include a critical pedagogical approach that questions the sources behind the messages that devalue the way of speaking of Latinx youth (their own family, teachers, media and even the Spanish Royal Academy of the Language.)  An interdisciplinary framework of teaching provides many opportunities not only for learning but also for language use, with the goal of strengthening a sense of multiple competencies and the integration of bilingual—and sometimes trilingual—identities of the Latinx students.  

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“Ah! So you teach them grammar then…” interjected a surprised Spanish literature professor in the middle of a presentation to other colleagues about the interdisciplinary pedagogy I use in my Spanish classes.  The surprise came from examples I presented of my students’ written work in which grammatical mastery and textual sophistication was evident. Descriptions, narrations, poetry, book reviews, academic opinion essays (both expository and argumentative) and stories are all genres I work on with the students in class. These forms of writing all require conceptual, as well as grammatical knowledge, in addition to research, organization and emotional connection.    

Semester after semester I verify that the students know more than they believe they do. What they need is a space in which they can share their histories, express their doubts, their fears, their conscience, pride and hopes regarding their Latinx identity. The professor’s work is not to undermine their way of speaking or to fail these youth; it is to give them access to linguistic resources that facilitate and enrich their range of expression and communication.  One has to explain, model how the language works and its different registers in a variety of contexts (informal, formal, personal, professional). One has to teach rules, to be sure, but one has to question them and motivate students to break them, to create and play with languages (isn’t this what poetry is all about?)—all the languages students use: Spanish, English and translanguaging.

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Juan Pablo decided to take one more Spanish class in high school. He again became frustrated because of the lack of training of the teacher, a substitute without any pedagogical foundation or much of an interest in his students.  This was his last attempt at studying Spanish. The opportunity was lost to interest a young man in his own culture, language and literature. His mother, Sara, keeps trying to fill the gaps that his classes left…and indeed, they created more gaps because of his loss of confidence.  

Latinx youth are the largest and fastest growing population in the country, but it is also a group vulnerable to poverty, discrimination and stigmatization, as well as threatened by family separation, The effort and work made by these youth in elementary and high school to get to the university is monumental.  Spanish and their culture of origin, in whatever quantity they possess, are part of an essential cultural asset for the identity and welfare of these young people. They have the right to use, know, enjoy and educate themselves in the language of their families.

Thus, the 21st century presents Spanish professors with a difficult exam: to design pedagogies and forms of evaluation that are inclusive of the necessities and strengths of Latinx children and youth. We must study and fill current gaps with new forms of socially responsible teaching in the years to come. The future means hard work that perhaps will not always be perfect. But at least we will have worked to leave the future with a more sensible and meaningful teaching of Spanish. 

 

María Luisa Parra-Velasco is Senior Preceptor of Spanish at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. She has a B.A. in Psychology, a Ph.D in Hispanics Linguistics. She has more than 10 years of experience working with Latino youth designing innovative pedagogy for the maintenance of Spanish and the learning of Latin American history and culture. She is also mother of two bilingual and bicultural teen-age boys.