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Definitions: Heritage Speaker v. Native Speaker v. World Language learner

What is a heritage speaker?

You’ve probably heard the terms native speaker, heritage speaker, and world language learner to describe language learners, but it can be very difficult to define who is a heritage speaker. This post will explain the difference between the three terms and why it is not always easy to classify a student as one or the other.

Native speaker: My definition, simply put, of a native speaker of Spanish is a student who has grown up in a Spanish-speaking country, speaks Spanish at home, and usually has had at least some schooling in Spanish.    

Heritage speaker: A heritage speaker is a student who has grown up with family members who speak at least some Spanish to them but does not live in a Spanish-speaking country and has had little to no education in Spanish. (See definition from CAL)

World Language Learner: A world language learner is a student who would generally start in a Spanish 1 class as a novice learner.  They may have relatives that speak Spanish, but have little or no comprehension of Spanish.

These definitions may seem logical, but the hard part is that our students don’t fit neatly into these categories.  For example, when I taught in Switzerland I had a student whose family was German but they lived in Spain where he had grown up attending an international school.  He was doing high school at an English-medium boarding school in a French-speaking country.  The student had a perfect Spanish accent and knew all of the latest slang expressions but had little to no academic vocabulary or reading ability in Spanish. 

Globalization and immigration are making situations like this much more common.  Students do not fit into neat boxes with a language level that can be easily pinpointed because they have had such different life and academic experiences.  So as teachers and counselors we have the difficult task of placing students in the class where they will be best served and accepting that there will likely be no perfect placement.

Native speakers in Spanish classes

In the United States, the native Spanish speakers that we have in class are almost always recent immigrants.  Their educational experiences may vary widely from wealthy families that have paid for excellent private education at the best schools to students who have come from rural areas with limited formal education. 

Are native speakers well-served in heritage or immersion classes?

This really depends on the level of the student and the level of the class.  A student who is a native speaker with literacy skills that are at grade level will probably be very bored in a level 1 heritage speaker class.  They may also find it awkward to be in a Spanish class taught by a native English-speaking teacher.  On the other hand, a native speaker with literacy skills below grade level would probably really benefit from working on literacy skills in their native language. 

Additionally, for a student arriving in the United States with little knowledge of the education system and no English, being in a class taught in Spanish could really be a life preserver to help them adjust and make friends. 

As a school with a dual language (immersion) program, one conflict we are constantly facing is whether or not to put native Spanish speakers with lower English levels in the Dual Language social studies classes as opposed to the basic ESL social studies classes.  We often hear from students and families that they want/need to learn English as fast as possible.  My personal opinion is that we should put students in the Spanish version of these courses because it helps native speakers have access to grade level content.  For example, a World History course taught in Spanish would be at grade level, but an ESL introduction to social studies class for novice learners would not be.  Having native speakers in the Dual Language courses also helps raise the level of Spanish and encourages use of the Spanish amongst students in class, which is always a struggle. 

On the other side of the scale we have the division between heritage speakers and students who should be in a world language class.  Just because a student is Latino does not mean they should be in a heritage speakers class.  Let me say that again.  Don’t assume that a student with a Spanish-sounding name should be in a heritage speakers class.  Sadly, because of pressure in this country to learn English and sometimes by the misguided efforts of parents, it’s not uncommon for students to have grandparents in Mexico but speak little Spanish in the case of second and third generation immigrants.  Students who report speaking (or hearing) ANY amount of Spanish at home should be given a written and oral placement test.  Usually you can find this information easily by looking at a student’s reported home language. 

What should the minimum language level be for a heritage speakers or Dual Language class?

The minimum language level required for a heritage speaker class varies widely depending on the district, the class and the student.  If a district is offering a Spanish for Heritage Speakers class at the high school level and doesn’t offer biliteracy or Spanish classes at lower levels, you can assume that for most of the students this will be their first time formally reading and writing in Spanish.  The course may also have as a goal more of an identity affirmation or ethnic studies curriculum and may not be taught 100% in Spanish.  Here you might take students with something as low as an Intermediate Low level of oral skills (and likely lower for literacy). 

Student motivation is an important factor, too.  If you have a highly motivated student who really wants to learn their heritage language they would probably be ok with a lower level of Spanish.  If a student hates to speak Spanish and has no desire to learn they might be better in a World Language Spanish class. 

Finally, heritage speaker courses are often short on numbers.  If you don’t have the required enrollment numbers, you might need to take students with a lower (or higher) level of Spanish than you would like.

In general, I would never place a student who hears or speaks 90-100% in Spanish at home in a World Language class lower than Spanish 3.  Spanish 1 or 2 are really not ever appropriate courses for them.  Occasionally I will place a heritage speaker in Spanish 3 when there are issues with scheduling or when a student is very low academically and/or very unmotivated and they would really benefit from having a class where they can shine and be a leader who knows the answers. 

Spanish Language Arts v. Spanish for Heritage Speakers

My high school has the continuation of a Dual Language Immersion program that students have been in since Kindergarten.  Our classes are officially Spanish Language Arts 1 (usually 9th graders) and Spanish Language Arts 2 (usually 10th graders) and then AP.  They are supposed to be 100% in Spanish and at the same level as a regular English Language Arts class.  When we started these courses a few years ago the district did away with courses for heritage speakers.  Spanish Language Arts 1 is supposed to be for any heritage speakers, as all heritage and native speakers have a legal right to access dual language education.  In practice, however, you can imagine that it’s difficult for a student who has never studied academic Spanish to start in a Spanish class that is supposed to be at grade level and include major writing assignments.  When you add programs like AP and IB this becomes even more fuzzy.  I feel like it would be appropriate to still have a section of the class for heritage speakers taking Spanish for the first time, but we just don’t have the numbers for it. 

In short, there is no easy answer for where to place a student who speaks another language at home.  What is certain is that they must be given a thorough placement test and other factors like scheduling and motivation must be taken into account.

If your child wants to learn another language, a great place to do so is with Outschool. Outschool has live, online classes for kids and they offer some classes for heritage speakers in various languages.

Read more about challenges for Secondary Dual Language Immersion Programs

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