From Abuela’s Table to the Classroom: Spanish for Heritage Speakers

Are you a heritage speaker who naturally became bilingual by speaking Spanish en casa (at home) and English en la escuela (at school)?

Naturally speaking two languages is fabulous but it also presents its own issues when heritage speakers formally attempt to learn a language they already technically know.

Luckily, I’ve got some tips that are great for helping intermediate and advanced Spanish speakers gain greater proficiency and confidence, as well as some excellent resources for you to use.


Spanish Is Spoken Nearly Everywhere

Spanish is spoken by over 400 million native speakers and is the official language in more than 20 countries.

And in the U.S., Spanish is the most widely-spoken language after English, with 40 million people ages five years and older who speak Spanish at home.

Because of those population trends, there are lots of Spanish heritage speakers. You may be one of them, or you may know someone who is. If you do, you’re in good company. There are a lot of us in that same boat.

Most people expect a Spanish speaking student (SSS) to not need to study Spanish.

But that’s a bit silly, isn’t it? Because English speakers study English, don’t they?

Wait a minute, I think I just read your mind! I’m picking up something. Yes! You’re thinking:

Sure, English speakers do take English classes, but that’s different—English is the most common language where I live. So why should I “officially” learn Spanish if I already speak it?

There are many reasons for heritage speakers to study Spanish.

For example, you may need the coursework as part of a degree program you’re enrolled in. If that’s the case, try enrolling in AP classes so you don’t have to sit through the real basic things you mastered when you were a niño (boy) or niña (girl)—like learning the alphabet.

Or maybe you require certification showing that you have an academic proficiency in the language. Some companies and universities require employees or students to have or earn Spanish language certificates. Unfortunately, even though you may have learned excellent Spanish from your abuela, she probably doesn’t have the bureaucratic chops to issue an official document attesting to that. If you’re in that situation, you may want to check out places that offer those specific programs and certifications.

Other heritage speakers want to study Spanish for more low-key reasons. It can be as basic as wanting to speak the language without slang, dialect or sloppy grammar.

Whatever the reason, learning to speak “correctly” can often lead to better employment possibilities, an improved education and/or new cultural opportunities.

4 Tips for Heritage Speakers Learning Spanish

1. Realize that formal study isn’t the same as learning at home

When you learn Spanish at home, there are no grammar rules, syntax conventions or verb tenses to study. Even better, there are usually no pop quizzes on vocabulary or the pluscuamperfecto—unless you really get on abuela’s nerves!

Even if the environment at home is bilingual, it’s immersive, and that’s very different from the environment in a language class. As with many things in life, that comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Don’t focus on comparing one type of study to the other. They are manzanas y naranjas (apples and oranges).

Sure, apples and oranges are actually fairly similar (they’re both small, round fruits that grow on trees) but there’s no point in obsessing about the differences. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of each—and that goes for fruits and learning methods!

For example, home immersion allows language development to evolve naturally. Classes, on the other hand, force the mind to accept certain concepts and then gradually build upon them.

There are four core skills involved in language learning: listening, speaking, reading and writing. They’re the same for any language, including your native tongue. And the good news is, you’ve already got some immersion-acquired skills that you can use as your foundation for this next step in the learning process.

It’s all about mindset at this stage. With your goal in mind, resolve to put as much effort as possible into achieving it. Sustained effort toward anything almost always yields positive results, and that’s true for heritage speakers studying Spanish.

2. Evaluate your options

Introductory Spanish isn’t going to do it for you. “Relearning” Buenos días (good morning), Hasta mañana (see you tomorrow) and other frases básicas (basic phrases) will be dismally boring to someone who already speaks the language.

So you’ll want to go for at least an intermediate course.

If your syntax and grammar skills are solid, go for advanced lessons. Many are offered online. AP classes, as opposed to purely conversational classes, let you work on more complex points of the language.

Or if you’re interested in learning something new while honing your language prowess, perhaps a course that will teach you a skill, like hablar en público (public speaking) is more your style. Regardless of skill level, having a solid grip on speaking before groups of people is useful.

Many cities and universities offer courses for heritage speakers, including public speaking courses. New York University, for example, has a program called Speaking Freely, which is geared toward speakers at all levels

That’s just three examples, but there are many others out there. Depending on your circumstances, you should try doing an internet search for other courses in your area. Check public libraries and universities near you to find similar local resources. It’s not hard; just search for “Spanish courses for heritage speakers” and add your city or region.

Additionally, classes that are in Spanish but which are about learning completely different skills (e.g. programming, cooking, etc.) provide useful training along with language skills. Academic courses taught in Spanish aren’t generally presented in the informal conversational Spanish spoken at home.

To find such classes, look into places in your neighborhood where these events are held. For example, there’s an extensive list of cooking-related courses in California. Just do a search based on your interests and location, and you may be surprised what you find!

3. Assemble the tools you’ll need to succeed

I’m an advocate of having the right tool for the job, and this definitely applies to language learning.

One of the biggest—and most basic—tools is a dictionary. It just makes sense to be able to search for vocabulary or look up a phrase you don’t understand.

If you’re taking an online course, download the course material. For example, Carleton University offers a course specifically tailored to heritage speakers—and it’s totally online.

There are also textbooks and other reference or study books written specifically to help heritage speakers.

A journal is another valuable language learning tool. Focus on jotting down unfamiliar conjugations and complex sentence structures. Also, take notes on the “why” of how phrases work. Spanish sentence construction is distinctive and just because something works, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically understand why it works. This is the time to grasp those concepts, and writing often makes ideas stick.

There are also great online courses that can help walk you through the language learning process, while also keeping it fun. FluentU, for example, centers around using a library of authentic video clips to create personalized language lessons. Each video has interactive subtitles and transcripts that allow you to see each word’s pronunciation, translation and in-context usage, as well as accompanying quizzes and vocabulary lists.

Last but not least, put grammar apps on your phone for take-along practice opportunities, like Learn Spanish Grammar.

4. Go for it!

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has published information on how long it usually takes English speakers to learn different foreign languages; Spanish is in the first category, meaning that it’s usually one of the “easiest” languages to learn, at least from the perspective of an English speaker. Although it doesn’t specifically deal with heritage speakers, it’s a fairly safe assumption that it will take you considerably less time to acquire some missing Spanish skills as opposed to learning a whole new language.

There are four components of language: phonology (the study of sounds), semantics (the study of meaning), pragmatics (the study of word usage) and syntax (the study of language structure—connecting words and phrases to build grammatically-correct sentences).

Heritage speakers already have the first three on board, so you should focus mainly on the syntax aspect. Put your energies into understanding sentence structure and grammar rules.

I know this can be intimidating but it’s necessary. Grammar rules can be explained in detail, so after a while, you should be able to understand why words work the way you know they do.

For an extra boost, check out resources aimed at native or advanced Spanish speakers, such as advanced Spanish podcasts, to tie it all together. Try especially to notice how the hosts talk and try to find examples of new grammatical structures that you’ve perfected.

Heritage learners can quickly “straighten out” the Spanish learning curve

Heritage Spanish speakers bring some unique challenges to the learning table, but they also bring knowledge that those tackling Spanish for the first time don’t have.

Start with what you know, then learn what you don’t—and finally, blend the two. The result will be increased proficiency and added confidence that the Spanish you’re speaking is the best it can be.

If you’re a heritage learner, you’ve already got a cultural commitment to Spanish, so do the work and show ‘em how it’s done! I did, and you can, too!


¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

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