The Linguistic Similarities of Spanish Heritage and Second Language Learners

Article excerpt

Abstract:

This article addresses the situation of lower-proficiency heritage language learners of Spanish in terms of their linguistic similarities to second language learners. The analysis highlights grammatical and lexical features in the oral discourse of Spanish heritage and second language learners at intermediate and advanced levels of study, establishing common linguistic ground between the two groups. Given the similarities, the article emphasizes the current need for courses designed to accommodate lower-proficiency heritage learners, integrating principles and aspects of second language acquisition theory and pedagogy.

Key words: grammar, heritage language pedagogy, oral proficiency, Spanish heritage language

Language: Spanish

Introduction

Since its inception some three decades ago, the field of heritage language teaching in the United States has generally been pitched within a politics of difference. Scholars have emphasized important differences between heritage language learners and second language (L2) learners, laying the groundwork for a line of research and advocacy that has rightly emphasized the need for separate classrooms for these two principal types of students.1 Articulation and implementation of Spanish for native speakers (SNS) courses have proven quite fruitful. Such courses are now in place at many secondary and postsecondary institutions around the country, and make great strides to reach the typical second-generation bilingual who selfidentifies as a native speaker of Spanish (cf. Villa & Villa, 1998) and whose fundamental academic need is the development of formal register literacy skills.

At the same time, however, this work has in some ways stifled our understanding of the precise linguistic processes that characterize heritage language abilities-and the theoretical and pedagogical models that inform them-by implicitly suggesting a dichotomous relationship between heritage language learners and L2 learners. This dichotomy has served to perpetuate the ill-defined concept of the native speaker in the minds of many practitioners who are not privy to research and theory in language acquisition and bilingualism. More importantly, it has placed in a rather precarious position the ever-growing number of third- and fourthgeneration heritage learners who often lack the fluency of most second-generation speakers.2 Although the former are rightly considered heritage learners in social and psychological terms, they may have more in common with traditional L2 learners than with second-generation Spanish speakers in linguistic terms. Indeed, the linguistic similarities between heritage language learners and L2 learners have gone largely unaddressed and, as a result, the vital connections that must exist between the flourishing field of second language acquisition (SLA) research and the learning and teaching of heritage languages have not yet materialized.

Lynch (2003a) points out that heritage language "speakers are generally characterized by linguistic processes and social factors attributed both to SLA and to situations of language contact" (p. 31), and Lynch (2003b) calls for the growing field of heritage language acquisition to build upon basic theories and methodologies of SLA in the development of research paradigms and pedagogical practices. Similar to Lynch (2003a, 2003b), Valdés (2005) subsequently calls for a "reconceptualization and expansion of the field of SLA by examining possible interactions between SLA and the area of language instruction currently referred to as the teaching of heritage languages" (p. 410). However, there is a dearth of empirical research to date that explicitly compares specific linguistic features of Spanish heritage language learners with those of L2 learners following a uniform methodology. This article seeks to make an original contribution in this area, from a descriptive sociolinguistic perspective.

My aim is to demonstrate that the oral discourse of some heritage language learners, at lower ranges of the bilingual continuum (Silva-Corvalán, 1994), is similar to that of intermediate and advanced L2 learners in several respects. …