Spanish Professor Starts Heritage Language Program in Public Elementary School

Posted: February 14, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lynn Burke

As the United States becomes more diverse and business becomes more global, the ability to speak a second language has become a valuable asset. But a great source of bilingual ability is often overlooked and sometimes lost. This source is the heritage language speaker, a person who comes from a home or a family in which a language other than English is spoken. This is often the case for immigrants and their children.

Last fall, Lisa Rabin, associate professor of Spanish, began a project to help promote literacy in this population: Spanish book clubs for heritage language speakers at the public school her daughter attends, Arlington Traditional School (ATS) in Arlington, Va.

Rabin, whose formal training is in literary theory and criticism, says the genesis of the program came in part from discussions with Mason colleague Jennifer Leeman, assistant professor of Spanish and an expert in heritage language issues. According to Leeman, heritage language students have linguistic abilities and educational needs that differ significantly from those of students who speak only English.

“Whereas second language learners often struggle to understand basic conversation and produce the sounds of the second language accurately, heritage language students can often already converse in the heritage language with native or near-native pronunciation,” says Leeman. “But heritage language students may have little knowledge of grammar or spelling, and if most of their schooling is in English, these students may lose the opportunity to develop literacy in the heritage language and broaden their linguistic repertoires to include formal as well as informal usage.”

Living in Arlington and having a great deal of contact with Spanish speakers as her children have entered the school system were other factors that motivated Rabin to develop this program.

“I came to see my teaching of Hispanic literature at the university to be framed by assumptions that were reified in my community. Why are heritage learners’ opportunities for developing critical agency through literary and historical study in Spanish postponed until they reach secondary school or college? ”

Rabin points out that ATS puts a strong emphasis on early attainment of and enthusiasm for literacy in English. As one example, the school already had a “literary lunch” for all the grades in English. And by the spring of 2005, several elementary schools in Arlington County, including ATS, were planning after-school programs for non-native Spanish speakers. The county even fully funded one program.

“Enrichment programs in Spanish literacy for heritage learners did not seem to be on anyone’s radar,” Rabin says. “When I suggested to the ATS principal, Holly Hawthorne, that Mason students could help to promote bilingualism and biliteracy for heritage learners of Spanish at the school, she was very supportive.”

For the book clubs, the heritage Spanish speakers were divided into four groups based on grade level. The groups, which met once a week at lunchtime, were led by Spanish majors Geneva Ardalan and Carmen Flores, and government and international politics majors Jenny Penado and Gabriella Guillen, who read books in Spanish to the children.

Funding for the books came from a grant from the Arlington Community Foundation and money from College of Arts and Sciences Dean Daniele Struppa and Modern and Classical Languages Chair Jeff Chamberlain.

Two of the books that were read were “Medio Pollito” (Half-Chicken), a Spanish American folk tale, and “Cuadros de familia” (Family Pictures), a story about a multigenerational Mexican American family. Rabin chose the books hoping that they could not only promote bilingualism and the acquisition of literacy in Spanish, but also historical and cultural knowledge.

A number of the books also include English translations, which Mason volunteers Guillen and Ardalan note were useful because some of the children had already begun to lose their ability to speak and understand Spanish. “The book clubs are a way of keeping the language alive,” says Guillen.

Several of the Mason volunteers are themselves heritage language speakers. Penado, whose first language is Spanish, says that it was not until she was half-way through high school that she took an interest in Latin American literature. “Maybe with this program children will have a better appreciation and love for books in Spanish.”

Penado thinks that the children will also profit in other ways. “I believe the children benefit from the program because we emphasize that being bilingual is a special talent, and they should feel proud of their heritage.”

Enthusiasm for the book clubs among the volunteers and children led Rabin to develop a free after-school class in Spanish literacy for ATS heritage learners, which Ardalan, Flores and three other Mason Spanish students are teaching for internship credit this semester. The children are creating a newsletter in Spanish on the web. Rabin’s colleague, Esperanza Román-Mendoza, associate professor of Spanish and an expert in computer-assisted language learning, and Meghan Brosseau, a student in the Technology Assistants Program, are helping with the curriculum.

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