The son of a Mexican mother and an American father, Craig moved from Mexico to the U.S. when he was about five. Shortly after, his mother returned to her home country, and Craig continued to use Spanish primarily just with her. Over the years, he took several courses to improve his Spanish. Yet those often were a poor fit, with beginner-level courses too basic for a fluent speaker and advanced courses reaching far beyond his grammatical knowledge.
But he found a perfect match at Colby.
Craig has been one of the students enrolled in a new two-course sequence specifically designed for heritage learners. Like Craig, heritage speakers grow up learning the language at home, usually through their parents. They often have strong speaking abilities but more limited non-spoken ones, such as reading or writing, making their needs vastly different from second-language learners. Thus, this academic year, the Spanish Department introduced a series of classes to meet the needs of Colby’s increasingly diverse student body, including a growing number of heritage Spanish speakers. The courses aim to build on students’ Spanish-speaking background, shift it from a private setting to a public one, and help them become more confident in the language and culture.
“For the first time in my Spanish education, I’m with people who are in the exact same position as me,” said Craig, a first-year QuestBridge scholar from Corpus Christi, Texas. “Having that community is really supportive because we build off of each other.”
The first course in the series, Spanish Language for Heritage Learners, was taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Sandra Vanessa Bernal Heredia in the fall.
“The objective … is not to erase the knowledge that the students have,” said Bernal Heredia, who previously offered a similar course at the University of Texas in Austin. “We need to treat it as an asset because these students have actually learned Spanish in their homes, and they can speak it fluently.”
In addition to covering grammar, Bernal Heredia emphasized culture and made it the course’s overarching theme, “because that will help these students feel proud of having that language, proud of their heritage,” she said. The students learned from each other about art, food, traditions, and festivals in various Spanish-speaking countries. They wrote ballads on current events and created comic strips about their family’s immigration story. The result was students who feel empowered in the language and speak it more freely and comfortably.
The empowerment and creative use of language extended into the next semester with Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Dámaris Mayans’s course, Spanish Composition for Heritage Learners.
Mayans, whose research focuses on bilingual acquisition with heritage learners at its center, emphasized language attitudes and cultural identity in her course. “This is very important because of the social, political, and economic status of Spanish in the U.S.A.,” said Mayans. She observed that most heritage learners have experienced negative attitudes about their regional varieties and come away with the perception that bilingualism isn’t the norm.
Through her class, she tried to instill the idea that no one speaks “standard Spanish,” and that varieties and bilingualism are to be cherished.
“Spanish for Heritage Speakers needs to be in any university because heritage speakers already come with the background that the second-language learners don’t come with.” —Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Dámaris Mayans
“I always thought Spanish was this unified thing; there’s a standard,” said Craig, a global studies and history double major. But taking these two courses, he realized people speak different kinds of Spanish. “I feel like this has made me more comfortable with my variation of Spanish and how it differentiates itself from the academic Spanish that is taught around the world in schools.”
Craig was initially drawn to these courses because of his career aspirations to go into foreign service or work with a nonprofit. “Having Spanish professionally would be really helpful,” he said. “But I didn’t realize the added benefits of it personally, where I would be able to talk with my own family better.”
When he spoke with his mother, she could hear the improvement in his Spanish, he said. She no longer had to sift through her son’s English words and grammatical mistakes to understand him. Their conversation, Craig said, has never been better. “It was such a good feeling.”
Despite interacting with the language since birth, these courses, he said, are “the most I’ve ever learned about Spanish.” While he wished there were more courses for heritage learners, he feels like he has a strong enough foundation to enroll in more advanced classes in the department.
For Jazmin Zuniga ’24, a first-year Posse scholar majoring in biology and American studies, these classes served as a way to strengthen her connection to her roots.
Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Houston, Zuniga was surrounded by Spanish. She learned it through her parents (who came to the U.S. from Mexico), spoke it with her siblings, and bonded with friends over it. But she’s never been to Mexico.
This has caused her to question her place on either side of the border, she said. Some of her Mexican relatives don’t see her as a true Mexican because she doesn’t speak the language as well as a native speaker; in the United States, some don’t see her as an American because of her Mexican heritage. “I feel like that’s a reason why I don’t feel as connected to my culture,” she said. This class, she said, presented the opportunity to strengthen that connection and improve her knowledge of the language.
Although she fluently speaks Spanish, Zuniga always found grammar, writing, and reading difficult. “I felt like knowing at least the basics of the grammatical format would allow me to be a step closer to preserving this precious language within my family.” And also, one day, passing it on to her children.
These courses—the first Spanish classes she’s ever taken—were a step in that direction.
“My Spanish has improved so much,” said Zuniga, as she was about to complete the second course this semester. She could hear the difference when she spoke to her parents and feel it when she began texting words she didn’t previously know how to spell.
Her understanding of the language and culture changed too.
“I just really enjoyed how both classes really emphasize the culture of all the countries of the students that are there,” she said. From her peers with roots in different Latin American countries, she learned about variations in language and culture among Spanish-speaking nations, such as how a “cake” is called pastel in Mexico but in Venezuela it’s torta, which means “sandwich” in Mexico.
“Our differences,” she said, “and how we still relate so much—that’s really interesting to me.”