Module 1: Defining Heritage Speakers

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Go to Course Introduction Adapting Curriculum to Heritage Speakers

Module Overview

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Our identities are not fixed at birth. Country of origin, social class, race, gender, and personal circumstances provide a starting point to think of who we are in the world. For those of us who have close ties to more than one country and language, identity is an evolving construct that is negotiated every day and deeply influenced by the experiences and interactions we have throughout our lives.

According to an accepted definition by Guadalupe Valdés, heritage languages are minority languages in society and are typically learned at home during childhood. Heritage language learners or HLLs (as I will refer to this group of learners throughout this training) grow up speaking a dominant language outside the home and a language connected to the family roots in the home.

The articulation of our identities is intimately linked to how fluent we are able to become in our heritage language. We can only tell the story of who we are in relation to the languages we speak and the ability to share this self-awareness with other members of our inherited culture. In this module, we will devote our attention to the cultural and demographic characteristics of Heritage Spanish speakers. This is the first step towards understanding how we can create a space in our language classrooms to empower Heritage Language students to explore the connection between fluency in Spanish and developing a bicultural/bilingual identity.

After you complete this module, you will be able to:

  • explain why it is important to create a classroom environment where heritage speakers can reach their full potential as learners
  • identify who are the heritage speakers in your classroom and differentiate them from second language learners
  • apply heritage speaker language acquisition theory to a real-life case study


Innovation in education: what works, what doesn’t, and what to do about it? by Peter Serdyukov.

Heritage Language Students: Profiles and Possibilities, Guadalupe Valdés, Stanford University.


Video "Meet Berenice and her daughter" Ted Talk: How we can help the "forgotten middle" reach their full potential, by Danielle R. Moss. Video "Hispanics vs. other terms".


Write journal entries one, two and three.

Learning in Context: Meet Berenice

The design of this course is inspired by the desire of so many Spanish teachers who would like to help those students who already have a meaningful connection to the Spanish language due to family history, daily use at home or unique upbringing. I have spent many hours talking to teachers who are aware that this group of students is not being served well by the Spanish curriculum they are required to follow in the class. Therefore, they are looking for ideas and solutions to this problem. I thought it would be helpful to start our training with a short video featuring a conversation with someone who represents the target student we are trying to help. In this way, you will have a point of reference to contextualize your learning as we go through the different units. Berenice moved to the United States from Honduras, Central America, ten years ago. Her biggest dream was to bring her kids to North Carolina so they could grow up having access to a great education. Berenice made many sacrifices in order to start a new life in the U.S. Berenice's twelve-year-old daughter was born in Honduras and came to the U.S. when she was two years old. She currently attends public school and is a very good student.


Watch the following video conversation from the immersion story "Las Tortillas".

To watch the full story go to

In this conversation, you will hear Berenice's daughter talking in Spanish about her mom's first year as a business owner of a Tortilla shop. This video offers a version of the conversation with English subtitles. Below you will find a link to the same conversation without subtitles. When you watch the video, please pay attention to Berenice's daughter body language and speech patterns.

Here are some questions to help you analyze this video conversation: How does Berenice's daughter use language to convey her ideas? Does the speaker seem confident about being able to communicate her ideas? Is she able to find the right words to express herself? Do you think that her body language conveys frustration about communicating ideas in a second language or does she seem confident and relaxed?

To watch the video without subtitles go to:

Journal Entry 1

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Write a journal entry discussing the following points:

1 - Imagine that Berenice's daughter is a student in your Spanish class. Explain to Berenice how you can help her daughter expand her knowledge of Spanish in the context of teaching an introductory Spanish I class.

2 - What makes students like Berenice's daughter different than other Spanish learners in a beginner Spanish I class?

3 - What are your thoughts about offering a differentiated curriculum to students who already have a background in the Spanish language.

Record your answer as a digital journal entry (PDF or Word document format). We will come back to these answers at a later time in the course.

Remember that the answers you provide are your own notes to help you reflect. Feel free to connect your answers to any new ideas that might come up and cross-reference other materials that you are able to locate.

Student Full Potential and Innovation in Education

Before we start exploring ideas on how to create a differentiated curriculum for Spanish heritage speakers, it is important to examine two important questions:

1) What role do teachers play in helping all students reach their full potential?

2) What is the connection between breaking old habits and innovation in education?

Please keep in mind that in this course, there are no right or wrong answers. My role is to guide you through the exploration of a series of questions so that in the process of answering them, you discover new ways to grow as a teacher and support Spanish heritage speakers as learners.

Helping All Students

To do: Watch the following Ted Talk: How we can help the "forgotten middle" reach their full potential, by Danielle R. Moss

In this speech, Danielle Moss talks about how impacted she was by her mom saying to her: “your location is not your destination”. When Danielle was a teenager, her mother explained to her that African-American girls who had an average performance at school needed to understand that their learning environments would not offer them growth opportunities unless they were intentional about creating them.

Journal Entry 2

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Reflect on the video you just watched and answer the following question:

Do you think that teachers are generally able to motivate all students in a Spanish class to do their best work?

Now, try to imagine what teachers could do to intentionally create opportunities to engage those Spanish students who are not doing their best work.

What would you do to help motivate students who already speak some Spanish or who are almost bilingual in English and Spanish to reach their full potential as language learners?

Record your answer as a digital journal entry (PDF or Word document format). We will come back to these answers at a later time in the course.

Obstacles to Innovation

Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian political economist and the first scholar to use the term of creative destruction, once said: "Habit, is as firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth". Schumpeter realized that this lack of awareness was the main obstacle to innovation.

Teachers, as many professionals in other disciplines, are often unaware of how rooted their habits are in traditions and how easy it can be to start believing that the way we teach is the best way to facilitate learning. In order to disrupt our way of teaching, it is useful to understand why we teach the way we do and what we can do to expand our thinking about alternative teaching methodologies.

To do

Download the article entitled: Innovation in education: what works, what doesn’t, and what to do about it? by Peter Serdyukov from the link below.

Journal Entry 3

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Reflect on the article you just read and answer the following question:

What kind of things have you done in your class in the past or think you can do in the future to create opportunities for students who are not learning as much as they could because the materials presented in class are too easy for them?

Record your answer as a digital journal entry (PDF or Word document format). We will come back to these answers at a later time in the course.

Heritage Speaker Teaching as an academic field

Part A: Demographics of Spanish speakers living in the U.S.


Part B: Terminology - Using the word Hispanics vs. other terms

Part C: Heritage Speakers as a category of Spanish Learners


Please download and read the following article: Heritage Language Students: Profiles and Possibilities, Guadalupe Valdés, Stanford University. You will find the link to the article below. This reading will provide you with a good foundation for developing a framework to understand who is a Spanish Heritage Speaker.


Scholars and researchers have defined heritage language learners in several ways. Open the powerpoint presentation below to review the main ideas and theoretical challenges of creating a definition for Heritage language students. In this presentation, we will go over the main ideas presented in the article you read for this section.

File:Heritage Language Students.pdf

If you would like to expand your understanding on this topic and how difficult it is to define who is the "ideal" heritage speaker, you could read the article written by Benmamoun, Elabbas, Silvina Montrul, and Maria Polinsky. “Defining an ‘ideal’ Heritage Speaker: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges.


Please watch the video below. In this interview, linguist Maria Polinsky explains the process of becoming bilingual, how speakers usually adopt one of those languages as a dominant language and how many bilinguals eventually become Heritage Speakers by the time they are in high school.

Expand your understanding

If you would like to take a deeper look at the cultural context in which heritage speakers develop their language skills, you could watch the two videos below.

A - Harvard Student talks about growing up speaking two languages

In this first video, you will hear a student in a Spanish class at Harvard University talk about what he perceives to be the areas of strengths and weakness in his language abilities. He also explains his experience as a bilingual student living in the United States and going to Mexico for visits during his breaks. This interview is completely in Spanish and does not have the option of English subtitles.

B- Singer Cardi B press interviews in English and Spanish

In these last two videos, you will observe how singer Cardi B conducts herself when interviewed in both her native language and her heritage language. During both interviews, she talks about her experience growing up as a Latino woman in New Jersey. The first video is in Spanish and the second video is in English. Watching these videos will give help you understand the extent to which certain heritage speakers develop the ability to switch between two languages.

Cardi B talking in Spanish Cardi B talking in English

Next Steps

To continue with the next section of the training go to: Module 2: In-Class Assessment of Heritage Speakers