Bilingual Writing Pedagogy by M.C. Montoya, Ph.D.


“Spanish for Bilinguals” is an undergraduate intermediate writing course in the Foreign Languages and Literatures department at SUNY Oneonta. It is designed to teach academic Spanish to the heritage/bilingual speaker. When Hispanic heritage speakers arrived as freshmen, they are advised to consider Spanish classes and to explore double majors that include the study of their heritage language. Among these heritage speaker students each year, there are some with higher oral proficiencies and even some bi-literacy who find Spanish courses to be a career path to complement their interests in education, social services, criminal justice, pre-medical fields, and other academic programs. These are the students who enroll in the only course offered for Spanish heritage speakers in the curriculum, and who have been writing their autobiographies as a result of a pedagogical approach that seeks to leverage their oral fluency in developing a written command of the language.

Course Methodology: “Living Bilingual” Autobiographies

Students in this course are identified by the instructor as having intermediate/advance-leveled oral proficiency with uneven literacy abilities. The course has been taught with the same pedagogical approach to students coming from urban and rural New York; Students are required to write autobiographies, in Spanish, in which they describe, narrate, and reflect on their use of Spanish while growing up. These autobiographies have been collected since 2009 in multiple sections of the course, and the information provided therein revealed household dynamics that are passed on to second generations as an important value of their ethnic identity. The teaching of standard norms of language use is accomplished implicitly as students compose autobiographical essays. The written production supplies the structures that students analyze to differentiate formal versus informal registers, varieties of Spanish language, and English-Spanish contact outcomes. Essays are organized first from a descriptive discourse, passing to narration and the use of past tense, and ending with a reflective essay where they wonder about their future, their role as Hispanics in the U.S. and values that they will carry on with them and pass on to future generations.

The Autobiographical Essays

There are five main essay topics: (1) “My Present Life, My Language and Identity”; (2) “My Parents”; (3) “My Childhood”; (4) “My Adolescence”; and  (5) “My Social Self and Future Aspirations.” In the first essay, treatment of their positions regarding their use of Spanish and their social identity are investigated. A class discussion generates a conceptual map of a variety of ideas; the instructor and students organize the topics in a coherent manner and then students individually develop them. The same brainstorming process is used for the other four essays, and a list of questions is provided for the students to interview each other in class and find commonalities and differences in their upbringing as Hispanics in the U.S. For the third and fourth essays, “My Childhood” and “My Adolescence,” the topics developed are: family traditions, celebrations, daily routines, use of Spanish at home, friends, activities, traveling to their parents’ countries, schools, teachers, bilingual or ESL programs, and extracurricular activities, as well as farming or other job experience. There is a subtopic developed while students are composing the narration of their past experiences that focuses on their parents’ lives in their countries and decisions to immigrate to the U.S. The purpose of this assignment is to interview their parents, and it becomes fascinating for the students to realize the hardships their parents endured for the future success of their children. After this assignment, reflection is deep and creates the foundation for the last essay, in which students express how they perceive themselves within the larger society and consider their role for future Hispanic generations. The uneven proficiencies within the group and various levels of Spanish literacy and even written fluency in English present different outcomes. Some students expand their work into a more than 50-page autobiographical essay at the end of the course, whereas others can complete only about 20 pages. Assessment of the life stories is not based on number of pages written but grasp of the various discourses that prompt them to use a variety of grammatical structures without even noticing.

Pedagogical Framework

The pedagogical approach of this course directly addresses Potowski’s (2005) proposed sociolinguistic methodology that reinforces linguistic security, values Spanish varieties learned at home, and allows for the natural flow of code-switching in teaching Spanish to heritage speakers. This scholar recommends that educators become more sensitive to cultural manifestations, identity construction, and the benefits of being bilingual and biliterate, while allowing bilingual acquisition to evolve naturally and strengthening mental connections in the learning process. 

The methodology to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) described as Fluency First, presented by A. MacGowan-Gilhooly (1996), provides an appropriate methodology for any writing course in any language. For this study’s purpose, Fluency First allowed the instructor to meet the heritage language students at their proficiency level while exploiting oral fluency and seeking to develop literacy. This approach allowed students’ oral fluency to be expressed in a written form first, without the prescriptive restrictions of traditional grammar methods. In the process, students discovered and recognized Spanish language heritage as part of their linguistic and cultural identity in the U.S. Reflective rather than judgmental methods were used ultimately to provoke thought about their own identities and future paths in U.S. society.

Potowski, Kim. 2005. Fundamentos de la enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes en los EEUU. [Foundations in teaching Spanish to Hispanic speakers in the U.S.]. Cuadernos de didáctica del español/le. Madrid: Arco/Libros, S.L.

MacGowan-Gilhooly, Adele. 1996. Achieving Fluency in English A Whole-Language Book 3rd ed. Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Literature Review About Growing Up Bilingual

Scholarly work of the last three decades in reference to growing up bilingual in the U.S. recreates the process by which second-generation children achieve bilingual fluency and bicultural experience. Various researchers (Silva-Corvalán 1997 and Silva- Corvalán 2001; Roca 2000; Klee and Ramos García 1991; Zentella 1990 and Zentella 1997; Torres 1990; Lipski 2008; Lacorte and Leeman 2009; Montrul 2013) have defined certain characteristics of Spanish language variation in the U.S., its acquisition in bilingual environments, private and public, and proficiencies resulting from deep contact between Spanish and English. These studies aid in determining the role that each language plays in the social identity of a heritage language speaker. 

Klee, Carol. A and Ramos García, Luis A. 1991. Sociolinguistics of the Spanish Speaking World: Iberia, Latin America, United States. Tempe-Arizona: Bilingual Press / Editorial Bilingüe.

Lacorte, Manel. & Leeman, Jennifer. (eds) 2009 Español en los Estados Unidos y otros contextos de contacto, Sociolingüística, ideología y pedagogía. Madrid: Vervuert – Iberoamericana.

Lipski, John. 2008. Varieties of Spanish in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Montrul, Silvina. 2013 El bilingüismo en el mundo hispanohablante [Bilingualism in the Spanish speaking world]. Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell. 

Roca, Ana. 2000 Research on Spanish in the United States Linguistic Issues and Challenges. Sommerville: Cascadilla Press.

Silva-Corvalán, Carmen. 1997. El español hablado en los Ángeles: aspectos sociolingüísticos.[Spanish spoken in Los Angeles: sociolinguistic aspects]. In Alarcon, F. and Colombi, M.C. (eds.), La enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes, praxis y teoría,[Spanish teaching to Hispanic speakers, practice and theory], 140-155. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

2001. Sociolingüística y Pragmática del español. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Torres, Lourdes. 1990. Spanish in the United States: The struggle for legitimacy. In

Bergen, J.J. (ed.), Spanish in the United States Sociolinguistic Issues, 142 – 151. United States: Georgetown University Press. 

Zentella, Ana Celia. 1990. El impacto de la realidad socio-económica en las comunidades hispanoparlantes de los Estados Unidos: reto a la teoría y metodología lingüística.[The impact of a socio-economic reality in the Hispanic speaking communities in the United States: challenges to linguistic and methodological].

Who is the Heritage Language Learner/Speaker?

The definition of the heritage language learner/speaker as various scholars have defined it is:

“…it refers to someone who has had exposure to a non-English environment outside the formal education system. It most often refers to someone with a home background in the language, but may refer to anyone who has had in-depth exposure to another language” (Draper and Hicks 2000: 19). Moreover, Valdés (2005: 412) designates a heritage language student as a person “…who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken. The student may speak or merely understand the heritage language and be, to some degree, bilingual in English and the heritage language.” 

These definitions highlight the importance of the home environment as the source for the child’s familiar or private language and in many cases the first language used by this child to communicate. This point is revealed later in Kung’s findings (2013) about how parents’ involvement substantially affects children’s heritage language maintenance. 

The autobiographical collection derived from this course include participants born within Hispanic families where both parents are Spanish native speakers and first-generation immigrants and the first language used with the child is Spanish; however, there are specific cases that might affect this Spanish input and allow language contact between Spanish and English very early in life. Valdés (2005: 411) referred to such cases as circumstantial bilinguals/multi-linguals meaning: “speakers that may acquire and use two or more languages in order to meet their everyday communicative needs.” 

The circumstances described above by Valdés can be found in households where, a) Hispanic parents have migrated at a young enough age to achieve native fluency in English (before or during adolescence); b) when the household is shared with grandparents or other relatives, who are usually the first caretakers of the child; c) when the birth order of the child in relation to other siblings impacts the language used among them; or d) circumstantial bilinguals may be found in early childhood programs where the main language used is English.  

Draper, Jamie B. and Hicks, June H.  2000. Where we’ve Been; What we’ve Learned.  In Miller, Barbara. L. & Webb, John. B (eds.), Teaching Heritage Language Learners: Voices from the Classroom, 15 – 35.  New York: ACTFL Series.

Valdés, Guadalupe. 1997. The Teaching of Spanish to Bilingual Spanish-speaking

Students:Outstanding Issues and Unanswered Questions.  In Alarcon, Francisco.

and Colombi, M.Cecilia. (eds.), La enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes, praxis y teoría, 8- 44. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.  2005. Bilingualism, Heritage Language Learners, and SLA Research: Opportunities Lost or Seized. The Modern Language Journal.  89 (iii): 410-426.

How Does Bilingualism Develop?

Both languages, Spanish and English, are learned within a supportive environment, not foreign to the individual: there is the home, which is their familiar environment, and the school and community, which is the domain for social interaction and community integration. The data collected in this study exemplifies the development within two language systems. For some children, Spanish input is provided by grandparents and extended family in the U.S., as well as within work environments during early adolescence. For other children, immigrant parents play an important role, and some children have had the opportunity to be immersed in their parents’ monolingual communities in Spanish-speaking countries for extended periods, which has given them a more comprehensive native heritage culture conceptualization development, providing not only linguistic fluency, but also intercultural competence.

Spanish in the U.S.

The first two decades of the new millennium present a proliferation of studies seeking to describe the varieties of Spanish in the U.S., and explain its maintenance, change, and shift into English among second and third generations. Beaudrie and Fairclough (2012) have contributed an overview of the field from multiple perspectives. Their work includes discussion of ideologies, linguistic policies and planning, and describes the advancement in the work of researchers, instructors, and educational institutions from almost thirty years ago, when resources were lacking and there were frequent misperceptions about best practices to educate this population while dealing with their dual identity construction. By the same token, Escobar and Potowski (2015) contributed to the field of Spanish in the U.S. with a textbook, written in Spanish, and intended to be used at the university level in Spanish academic programs.  It departs from historical information to contextualize sociolinguistic regions in the U.S. describing its use according to diverse immigrant populations. Their work not only include the intense contact existing between English and Spanish, but also considers dialects within the Spanish language and how these influence the variety of Spanish in the U.S. 

Beaudrie, S.M & Fairclough, M. 2012 (eds).  Spanish as a Heritage language in the 

United States, The State of the Field. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 

Escobar, A.M & Potowski, K. (2015) El español de los Estados Unidos. United Kindom: Cambridge University Press.

Teaching the Heritage Speaker

Lee and Wright (2014) discuss the need for explicit instruction as a condition to reinforce the home language experience. These authors state that parents’ input, although determinant in the development of the heritage language, cannot prepare the offspring to function in professional domains. There have been many challenges to maintain formal heritage programs in the community, such as limited resources like instructional materials and trained teachers. Lacking the basics puts schools at a disadvantage in implementing a heritage language education curriculum, which is needed to show these kinds of students how useful their home language could be for social change. 

Moreover, Carreira (2012) proposes meeting the needs of heritage language learners from a differentiated teaching approach. Carreira exposes the linguistic and socio-affective diversity that these students bring to one classroom, which must be considered when designing pedagogical practices. U.S. schools, depending on their geographical location, immigrant populations, and resources available may have or lack specific programs to offer the second-generation heritage language learner. Programs may vary from “pull out” ESL practices, bilingual “dual” classrooms, Spanish courses for heritage or native speakers, or, in the case of some rural areas where there is not a large heritage learner population, individual accommodation is made for the educational success of the child.

 On the other hand, literacy practices are not exclusively an academic practice. Colombi and Harrington (2012: 244) explain how the social meaning of literacy involves more than the ability to read and write. It is influenced by socio-economic, cultural, and political factors, which may or may not support the opportunity to develop literacy in Spanish. At the end of the 20th century and during the recent decade, scholars (Valdés 1997; Alarcón and Colombi 1997; Potowski 2005; Callahan 2010; Reese 2011; Makinina 2013) were exposing differences between second and heritage language learners, and the resulting difficulties of teaching this particular population with the same materials and methodologies used for second language learners. 

Proposals for this specific kind of student population proliferated just at the beginning of the 21st century, questioning the grammatical prescriptive approach. New methods to teach heritage language learners addressed meeting their needs and using their already acquired linguistic and cultural proficiencies. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) dedicated entire issues seeking to differentiate pedagogical approaches for this group; other scholarly organizations, such as the National Heritage Resource Center (NHRC) advocated for distinct considerations in heritage students’ learning processes. It is, therefore, obvious that the role of teachers and their understanding of this population of heritage speakers are crucial for a productive bilingual/bi-literacy development. However, bilingual learners access knowledge not only through formal English instruction but through their native languages’ home/community experiences. Their cultural-familial and communal experience determines their views and assumptions. 

Alarcón, Francisco and Colombi, M.Cecilia. 1997. La enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes Praxis y Teoría. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Callahan, Laura. 2010 U.S. Latinos’ Use of Written Spanish: Realities and Aspirations.

Heritage Language Journal 7 (1): Winter Issue.

Carreira, María. 2012. Meeting the Needs of Heritage Language Learners: Approaches, Strategies, and Research. In Beaudrie, S.M & Fairclough, M. (eds.), Spanish as a Heritage language in the United States, The State of the Field, 223-240.Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Colombi, M. Cecilia. & Harrington, Joseph. 2012. Advanced Biliteracy Development in Spanish as a Heritage Language.  In Beaudrie, S.M & Fairclough, M. (eds.), Spanish as a Heritage Language in the United States, The State of the Field, 241- 258.Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 

Lee, Jin Sook & Wright, Wayne.E. 2014. The Rediscovery of Heritage and Community Language Education in the United States. Review of Research in Education, 38: 137-165.

Makinina, Olga. 2013 The Learner-Exploring Heritage Culture Overcoming Challenges and Embracing Opportunities. The Language Educator, 8 (4): 42- 45.

National Heritage Resource Center (NHRC) Downloadable at

NCSSFL-ACTFL, 2012. Can-Do Statements Progress Indicators for Language Learners. Downloadable at

Potowski, Kim. 2005. Fundamentos de la enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes en los EEUU. [Foundations in teaching Spanish to Hispanic speakers in the U.S.]. Cuadernos de didáctica del español/le. Madrid: Arco/Libros, S.L.

Autobiography Development

The autobiographical narratives address three types of interconnected information (life, subject, and text realities) proposed by Pavlenko (2007) in using autobiographical data for applied linguistic research.

Life Reality in Rural NY Communities

The case of maintenance of Spanish as a heritage language in rural areas presents a complex phenomenon: the lack of public places where the language is used, the costly access to Spanish mass media, and the slower arrival of new immigrants makes Spanish maintenance as a heritage language more challenging, and it varies according to the support of the overall community. This support is revealed by the linguistic attitudes held by community leaders such as teachers, personnel at social service agencies, and monolingual English speakers in general. Linguistic attitudes of the community at large become messages for Hispanic families in their endeavor to carry on with their language loyalty and transmission of Spanish to their children. Regarding these students’ attitudes and motivations towards the heritage language, there is a combination of integrative and instrumental attitudes (Baker, 1995: 31-38), which they develop while growing up. Their motivation to maintain Spanish not only reveals instrumental attitudes in their need to succeed professionally, but also integrative attitudes associated with them being agents for social change among the Hispanic community.  

  “One of my plans is to continue advocating for the rights of the immigrant workers. Since I like helping people, that is what I would like to do in my future… Perhaps, I could be an English teacher for the workers” (Marisa).

 Parental educational level and the economic survival experiences students observe at home could be a source of encouragement or resentment toward maintaining the heritage language. The degree of ethnic identity, which is perceived at home and through their social interaction with the small heritage language community, is also a factor of recognition and motivation. The students’ attitude toward the heritage language and academic success in it is deeply related to their social class perception and aspirations for social mobility in the future. In addition, attitudes can affect the chances for social integration to academic and linguistic success.

   “During my adolescent years, I changed a lot. I entered these years rejecting my Hispanic heritage and got out recognizing more about my culture. Sometimes I felt like I was so different from my classmates, but at the same time I did not want to identify with them… My parents did not allow me to go out with my friends to have fun because they said that they did not trust them and that the American children’s customs were so different. This is the reason I did not have many friends outside from school. It never bothered me that my parents did not let me go out because I did not want to be like the American kids in my school. I did not like either to be part of a minority in my school because sometimes my classmates disrespected me, saying things to me because I was Mexican. I always defended myself and did not care what they said” (Guadalupe).

 Among the rural Hispanic heritage children’s life narratives, it is found that small communities provided them specific opportunities to interact with all community members regardless of age differences. Usually, the narratives report that pre-adolescents start to accompany their parents to the workplace, and they have jobs for themselves with other first-generation adult immigrants. While they are together, second-generation children not only interact in Spanish with older people from the immigrant community and serve as language brokers (interpreters) with non-Spanish speakers, but also perceive social conditions particular to their survival in rural New York. 

  “During my last year working there, I was also working packing fruit. I liked to work there because there were other women that talked in Spanish and I liked to talk with them. I realized there were some [slang] words and phrases that I did not like. One was ‘orale’ and one phrase was ‘no manches’–to this day I still don’t like them, but because I am with people who say them, sometimes they come out of my mouth, too” (Marisa).

 In rural environments the child’s role as a language broker or interpreter becomes necessary because there is no bilingual community that can fulfill this function. Therefore, rural heritage speakers can find themselves more often having the responsibility of facilitating their family’s access to valuable services, information, or material resources.

“I realized that being different could be something good. Sometimes the teachers from school called me because they needed someone to translate for a parent or to translate a document that they needed to send home to inform parents about school activities. This helped me during summer school. They offered me a job in a class to work with a student that did not know English” (Marisa).

“I first noticed that I had changed before entering sixth grade. During that summer I started working with my parents on a farm. One day they decided that it would be good if I were to help them. They woke me up at six in the morning to go with them. They did not want to pay a translator that would go with them to find a job, so at that moment I started to translate for my parents and to work. We started to work with grapes and little by little we started to do different jobs with our boss. During that summer he was remodeling the warehouse, and he gave us work cutting grapes. After we finished, he gave us work at the garden in front of the winery store. That day I realized this was hard work, and that I would have to do it to help my parents. The boss did not pay me, but he paid my parents. We worked by contract, which means that he paid us for what we did every week” (Abraham).

As discussed by Martinez, et al. (2009), the language broker role can have positive or negative effects on the child with complex consequences. It empowers the child to have an influential role in the family and gives them license to communicate for their parents and be involved in important family decisions. For rural heritage speakers, language brokering situations present an advantage in Spanish language maintenance. There is a need in the family for a fluent bilingual, beyond the familiar private topics. Second generations learn how to negotiate salaries and find job opportunities because they are the only resource for their parents in the process of community socio-economic integration, which is different from the process of acculturation. As explained by Jones (2008:11), integration involves social and economic consolidation with the host society, while acculturation relates to the adoption by the immigrants of host cultural practices such as language, religion, music, and traditional celebrations. These two processes evolve differently depending on opportunities and resources that apply to individual cases. The main barriers to integration are the lack of immigrant community and family resources, discrimination by the host society, undocumented status, lack of incentives to interact with the host society, and absence of a common ethnic network. In the acculturation process, there can occur the adoption of cultural traits that would benefit their integration such as learning the language of the host society, participating in the educational systems and demonstrating hard work; nevertheless, for some groups in rural environments, acculturation processes may develop partially from seeking to reinforce cultural pride and develop strong ethnic identities in a social setting where their differences are obviously highlighted due to the nonexistence of multilingual and multiethnic communities. For example, in some households, the student autobiographies disclose language contact with Mixteco, Spanish, and English. The presence of Mixteco adds to the development of ethnic identity and to the importance of the family language in order to maintain communication, and gives to Spanish the quality of a bridging position between the indigenous language and English between their immigrant community and the mainstream society.

“The language that they speak at home is Spanish, and it is also the official language in Mexico, but the language that we speak in my hometown is Mixteco. Mixteco is a combination of Spanish and other indigenous languages. Mixteco is only spoken by people from my town. I know it because I was born there; however, the language is being lost because some people do not speak it anymore or do not want to speak it. I am also losing it, but my parents encourage me to talk to them in Mixteco, so that I don’t lose it, otherwise it would be more difficult to communicate with uncles, aunts, and cousins who do not speak Spanish or English” (Abraham).

Hispanic parents see moving to rural areas as an opportunity for work in less competitive environments. In addition, they find pressure to remain in one place for their children’s stability and education. However, this often means ethnic and cultural isolation. In order to cope with the sacrifice of being away from family members and a common ethnic community, parents highlight that one of their main reasons for moving to the rural areas of New York state is their children’s education; they do not expect bilingual or ESL programs that support the use of home languages. On the contrary, they consider a “better” education to be a full immersion into the mainstream society that provides their kids with necessary content knowledge and English skills to compete and achieve higher levels of socio-economic success. Some parents seek to balance the lack of native culture and language by using strict language home rules and Hispanic traditional values for their daily family survival and the upbringing of their children; these strategies help them overcome social pressures from the mainstream culture that might discourage their kids from identifying themselves as Hispanics or advancing into higher education. Language and culture loyalty are particularly necessary in rural environments in order to maintain heritage languages, although it might not be successful if there is no support from the larger community. Rural Hispanic parents, interviewed in this study, hope for respect and support of Spanish language use at home by school personnel and state that this support is important as a transitional time from the home language environment to the school/community setting.

  It has been observed by the participants’ autobiographies that a prosperous life in small towns for their parents depended on social dynamics in their community integration. If they were part of a family with various siblings, they wanted to remain and integrate into the school system and establish relationships with educational leaders. The friendly welcoming in the schools, the assistance received from some leaders made them develop a sense of belonging to the community. This point is proven by Brisk’s analysis of school environments (1998: 34) “Students can succeed in schools that do not consider their language and culture if parents and students trust that these schools are sincerely interested in providing a good education.” It is also clear from the data collected that networks of immigrants, not only Hispanics, start at ESL programs either for adults or children through the school districts. Integration processes start in the school districts, and educational leaders and ESL instructors are at the front lines in helping all feel part of a community; often these kinds of educational programs surge as immigrants arrive and leaders identify the needs of the population. Community leaders might not have training in ESL, but they learn along with community members. These spaces generate more opportunities for the immigrants to get individual attention and tell their stories, to be heard, and ask questions that eventually help them navigate within the overall community. All this social interaction between leaders and ethnic communities is mediated by language contact. The uniqueness of their ethnic condition in an environment where their race and origin are so clearly distinguished can be a source for cultural exchange with other children belonging to the Anglo-monolingual community.

“We moved that year in December to a little town called Margaretville. By that time school had already started. When I came to school for the first time, everyone looked at me badly because all of them already had time to get to know each other. There was only one person that was good to me. Later when time passed, I became friends with everyone. During second grade, I remember that they took us out of class, but later I realized that they did this only to the Hispanic kids from my class. I remember that they took us to a class to improve our English. This was not much help, but because we were bilingual this was mandatory. I was in the class until my last year of elementary school, but it did not bother me to attend because when I was a child, I used to be closer to the other Hispanic kids” (Carmen).

The institutional leadership that each rural town has in order to develop and build a multicultural society is determinant in welcoming immigrants to these environments. A concrete example of a rural upstate New York Community that views community integration as a net positive is presented in the documentary, “Welcome to Fleishmanns” (Vecchione, 2009).  The excerpt presented above belongs to a student from the community researched by Vecchione. As immigrants seek to integrate and adjust to the host society, they also perceive the value of human and social capital that they contribute to this area. When the conditions for integration are promoted by the institutional leaders, immigrants see that they bring diversity and vitality into the school classrooms and the socio-economic well-being of the town. When there is recognition for their contribution, they seek to maintain aspects of their social capital, such as language and ethnic cultural practices that may be integrated with the overall community, constructing multicultural environments for all.

“Although I was one of the only Latinas at school, it was not negative because I was able to make friends with diverse kinds of people. I was able to see other people’s culture and share with them my family’s culture. When they did the Mexican independence party at a town near my house, I would bring my friends so that they could see the folkloric dances. They were even more interested than I was because I used to dance those dances. I loved this because I learned more about my roots and my cultural traditions” (Marisa).

The maintenance of heritage languages is observed in the formation of social networks for survival, adaptation and conservation of ethnic identity (Milroy 1980; Mines and Massey 1985; Paris Pombo 2006; Grim-Feinberg 2007; Vergara Wilson 2012).  Moreover, Alba, et al. (2002) suggest that there are some differences from the linguistic assimilation experienced by past immigrants and Hispanics today. Their analysis demonstrated some staying power for Spanish, especially when familial and communal contexts are supportive in regions where bi-ethnic culture has emerged. The authors recommend further research seeking the geographic effect in maintaining Spanish as a home practice. The question is whether the maintenance of Spanish in the U.S. is solely based on the arrival of new immigrants that keep revitalizing the use of Spanish, or whether there are other factors at play in determining whether the forces supporting Spanish differ depending on geographical region. 

“Growing up in a town all surrounded by my family was the best. I had my uncles and aunts, my cousins, my nieces and nephews and everyone. I lived with my parents and my two siblings also lived with us, and my sister and her child were at home also. Her son, John, is my age, so we got along well” (Carmen).

Brisk (1998:51) states that: “In the United States assimilation is seen as a precondition for social, political, and economic participation. Although most immigrant groups aspire to social and economic incorporation, they do not all have the same options. Some succeed in assimilation into mainstream middle-class America, others are socialized with poor native-born Americans, and still others choose to incorporate into an established ethnic community.” Participants in this study showed cultural assimilation into the dominant English mainstream to varying degrees, depending on the community integration experienced by the entire family. Nevertheless, these families never neglected the importance of the heritage language as a family value and the home environment proved to be a main motivation to preserve the native culture and language. 

“My parents gave us good advice. They taught us that the family values are to remain close, to have faith and trust. Without doubt, I also believe in these family values. I loved that they always made us talk in Spanish at home. I like a lot that my house was very spiritual because I always feel confident in any place” (Adriana).

Alba, Richard., Logan, John., Lutz, Amy. & Stults, Brian. 2002. Only English by the Third Generation? Loss and Preservation of the Mother Tongue Among the Grandchildren of Contemporary Immigrants. Demography 33 (3): 467-484.

Baker, Colin. 1995. Attitudes and Language. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Brisk, María Estela. 1998. Bilingual education: from compensatory to quality schooling. New Jersey: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Grim-Feinberg, Kate. 2007. Strengthening Social Capital through Bilingual Competence

in a Transnational Migrant Community: Mexicans in Upstate New York. Journal Compilation, International Migration.  45 (1): 177-208.

Jones, Richard.C. 2008 (ed). Immigrants Outside Megalopolis; Ethnic Transformation in the Heartland. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Milroy, L 1980. Language and Social Networks. Oxford UK: Basil Blackwell.

Pavlenko, Aneta. 2007. Autobiographic Narratives as Data in Applied Linguistics. Applied Lingusitics, 28 (2): 163-188.

Paris Pombo, María Dolores. 2006. Transiciones de género y etnicidad: las mujeres triquis en el Valle de Salinas [Gender and ethnicity transitions: Triqui women on the Salinas valley]. In Wehr, Ingrid. (ed.), Un continente en movimiento, migraciones en América Latina [A continent in movement, migrations in latin America],131-142. Spain: Iberoamericana/Vervuert. 

Vecchione Jessica, 2009. Bienvenidos a Fleischmanns-An Immigrant Community in Rural America. Downloadable at  Vergara Wilson, Damián. 2012. The Intersection of Identity, Gender, and Attitudes Toward Maintenance Among Beginning Spanish As A Heritage Language Students.  International Journal Lasso. 31(1): 177-198.

Subject Reality in Rural Communities

The autobiographical narratives of rural second-generation heritage speakers demonstrated that in maintaining the use of Spanish, home-private routines and rituals are a determinant for developing an ethnic identity. This identity is purposely self-encouraged in order to distinguish themselves from others within these areas where ethnic community isolation can be a factor. Rural Hispanic households often seek to use the home language to cultivate ethnic identities in their children so that they differentiate themselves from the mainstream, highlighting the diversity they bring to these rural areas. This allows uniqueness in an environment where they can be a resource for others while generating self-confidence as members of a small ethnic enclave in a rural community. Cultural and linguistic diversity acknowledgement made by the Hispanic second-generation children contributes to the value they place on the home language. Being able to perceive socio-cultural and linguistic differences in a monolingual rural setting could motivate the maintenance of the bilingual skill and the importance of the bicultural experience as an advantage over the dominant community. Similarly, Machado- Casas (2009) drew similar conclusions in her study of parenting and surviving as transnational multilingual Latino indigenous immigrants in North Carolina. The author argues that the participants used their ability to speak multiple languages (Spanish, English, and indigenous) and straddle multiple cultures as a survival tool that parents pass on to their children as fundamental knowledge and skills not recognized in mainstream schools.

 “Our customs are very social and familiar. It is up to our generation today to continue our traditions. These represent our culture and origin. As people of a great Latin-American history, it is our duty to maintain it. If the statistics are correct about the growth of Hispanic population in the U.S., what good is it if we have greater numbers of people here in the U.S., but do not maintain our culture?” (Carmen).

Beaudrie and Fairclough (2012) reveal new trends in the maintenance of Spanish as a heritage language, its complexities, and the role that educational programs have in supporting positive attitudes toward bilingualism in the U.S. For example, Rivera-Mills (2012) presents multiple studies demonstrating that the shift into English for the Hispanic community differs from other previous immigrant groups in the U.S. Adding to the multiple considerations required for the examination of contact between Spanish and English, Potowski (2005:21) highlights observing the Spanish variety used by the family and used within the surrounding Hispanic community, the education achieved in each language, the degree of language contact lived, and the need for each language within the community. All these factors are found in students’ personal reflections on their own life experiences while learning how to become fluent speakers. Testimonies from rural heritage speakers reveal a different journey based on a communal lifestyle that prompts ethnic community members of all ages to interact in different contexts beyond the home domain. The farming jobs that pre-adolescents take as part of the family’s responsibility, the language interpreter role which makes children aware of family struggles for survival, and the uniqueness of their ethnic condition within monolingual environments all shape different aspirations for their future. Lack of economic resources is experienced differently in rural settings than in urban ones. There is rarely a lack of food, rent is affordable, and living space is larger, providing natural settings such as lakes, rivers, and parks for children to entertain themselves safely after school. They often have individual attention from educational leaders and parents are supported in their will to maintain their ethnic traditions and even languages. A more positive outcome is found in this kind of environment for the upbringing of a bicultural-bilingual individual. Parents are supported in their message to their children to continue their education and better themselves.

 “All of this changed when I started to work with my parents at the farm picking strawberries, grapes, and driving tractors. Every weekend instead of playing with my friends I went to work, so I realized that I had responsibilities, and I was not a child anymore. Now I had to be more intelligent and more responsible” (Mauricio).

One common theme among all the narratives is the proximity to extended family. The students told of dense, close Hispanic rural networks composed of family and friends surrounded by mainstream societies. Their ethnic social network within their NY communities was composed of relatives or other immigrants from the same place of origin. All of them at some point in their lives shared a residence with other single adults, or other relatives with their own children. Cohabitation with uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins was a common factor in rural NY.

Beaudrie, S.M & Fairclough, M. 2012 (eds).  Spanish as a Heritage language in the United States, The State of the Field. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Machado-Casas, Margarita. 2009. The Politics of Organic Phylogeny: The Art of Parenting and Surviving as Transnational Multilingual Latino Indigenous Immigrants in the U.S. The High School Journal.  The University of North Carolina Press. April/May, 82-99. Rivera-Mills, Susana.V. 2012. Spanish Heritage Language Maintenance, Its Legacy and its Future. In Beaudrie, Sara.M and Fairclough, Marta. (eds). Spanish as a Heritage Language in the United States, The State of the Field. 21-42. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Text Reality

The overall Spanish language proficiency of the heritage language college student in the current study varies according to the NCSSFL-ACTFL Global Can-Do Benchmarks (2012). An oral communicative fluent heritage speaker who preserves linguistic features of their parents’ dialect and contact with English is observed. Among the Spanish heritage speakers at SUNY-Oneonta, there are three different biliteracy experiences within constant and fluent oral native input that had contributed to their vocabulary acquisition and development of Spanish written fluency: 1) Second-generation immigrant students who were born and raised in the U.S. and have experienced long stays in Mexico (more than 6 months) attending formal schooling. 2) Second generation immigrant students who have lived all their lives in rural New York with little or no experience with the written aspect of the language; some only have been part of Spanish as a second language programs in high school, not designed for their needs. They understand familiar words, phrases, and sentences and may write short messages and notes on familiar topics related to everyday life; however, English contact is observed in orthography and grammatical structures. 3) First generation immigrant students who were born in a Spanish-speaking country and arrived in the U.S between the ages of 5 and 10. These had already developed some Spanish literacy prior to arrival to U.S. schools; this last group presents extended use of complex vocabulary and grammatical forms; however, they still presents orthography insecurity mostly when placing accent marks, deciding when to use “c,” “s,” “z,” “j” vs “g,” and “v” vs “b” within words that are phonetically the same.

 The most fluent students have maintained proficiency between Intermediate High and Advanced Low levels of interpersonal communication, presentational speaking, and interpretive listening (NCSSFL-ACTFL Global Can-Do Benchmarks) that reflects ease of participation and confidence in conversations or presentations, on familiar topics, sometimes beyond their everyday lives, and the ability to provide details using various time frames. These speakers can handle a familiar situation with an unexpected complication, and easily understand main ideas and messages on a variety of topics related to personal interests and studies following some details in lengthy speeches.  

“When I ask my parents about technology, they just look at me with confused looks on their faces. They grew up in a generation that never had technology in their lives. Every time they see me with my phone in my hand, they say to me, ‘Tati, put that down, do something else.’ They are from that generation that thinks that technology does not help us with anything, and that it harms us. Since our generation is so attached to phones, they think that it is the cause for all the bad things that happen to us” (Tati).

 “Tacos are a typical food from Mexico that a lot of us like. The origin of the taco is unknown, but it is said that it came from the Olmecas because of corn. When we, the Michoacans, use the word ‘campechano,’ we are referring to the combination of various types of meat in one taco. But for example, in Campeche, Mexico, sailors incorporated different types of drinks in a cocktail and it is how the word started to be used among the natives there. The word ‘campechano’ indicates a mix of things”(Alexa).

NCSSFL-ACTFL, 2012. Can-Do Statements Progress Indicators for Language Learners. Downloadable at

Observations Gathered from Hispanic Communities in Rural Settings, and Variables Contributing to Heritage Language Maintenance

Overall, the influence of mainstream languages and the cultural assimilation experiences suffered by Hispanic families contribute to the dominant influence of English, and pressure second generations to interact less frequently in their heritage language. The situation in a rural environment is not necessarily better; indeed, one might assume that the shift to English would be even faster due to the lack of community support and less frequent arrival of new immigrants. As a concrete example among the few studies conducted in rural New York, Grim-Feinberg (2007) presents the difficulties found in strengthening social capital through bilingual competence. The author exposes how migrants’ close-knit transnational social networks help them reconcile the separation suffered from their host community. Internal social networks as well as external social links with the local community are necessary to maintain ethnic cultural values and heritage languages while obtaining local cultural knowledge necessary for integration. Regardless of the challenges found in the rural environment, data collected through life narratives from second-generation immigrants in rural settings confirmed that shifting to English and assimilation to the dominant culture can differ depending on geographical location and community integration dynamics. Immigrants move to rural areas seeking job opportunities and better places to raise their children. They find themselves developing a communal lifestyle, often similar to their places of origin, which in a lot of cases was also rural, and isolation from larger ethnic clusters of Hispanic immigrants encourages their small numbers to remain close to each other while providing an opportunity for their children to interact closely with adults. This interaction promotes bilingualism and children’s participation in family strategies for survival, which makes them develop a sense of social responsibility early in life. At the same time, community integration strategies in rural environments encourage second-generation heritage speakers to be advocates for social change and motivates them to further their education.

Therefore, two of the main questions derived from observing the development of autobiographical narratives are 1. How is Spanish as a heritage language maintained in rural settings where there is a reduced community support? And 2. What motivates Spanish heritage language learners to pursue a career involving Spanish academic study? Five variables are found to be determinant in Spanish heritage language maintenance in rural settings. 

First, how it is maintained: 

(1) private/intimate survival through close family networks; 

(2) identity/ethnic construction in a mainstream community different from their own. 

Second, motivations for further study and maintenance of heritage language: 

(1) compassion to help others in rural communities experiencing similar situations as their own families. 

(2) instrumental realization that Spanish maintenance would take them further professionally. 

(3) institutional support to provide Spanish language academic instruction at college.

There are specific factors that can contribute to maintaining Spanish as a heritage language in these rural environments. Most of the students’ families originate from Mexico, and often one rural community finds immigrants coming from one unique place in Mexico, Oxaca, and from Mixteco heritage. The small and dense ethnic networks are composed of extended families and immigrants with the same village of origin. Others from different places are welcomed as part of the same Hispanic community surrounded by mainstream English-speaking societies. Another contributing factor is that most families remain married and there are no interethnic or interlinguistic marriages among the first-generation immigrants, providing most prominently Spanish-speaking and Hispanic cultural environments for the second generation. Lastly, the fact that most immigrant parents’ lack an advanced education gives their children the responsibility to bridge their parents’ integration into the larger community. Family size and physical proximity is also a determining factor for language loyalty and maintaining cultural practices. There are more relatives and co-terrain neighbors to celebrate and embrace traditions and siblings become motivated to preserve the uniqueness of their ethnic identity in rural environments. Larger community support is a determinant for private practices in order to maintain heritage language and cultural traditions. It was observed that these immigrants are viewed as resources for multicultural input by educational leaders in social settings where the rest of the world seems distant. The cultural exchange that Latinos bring to the rural Anglo-monolingual population is valued, since frequently rural children do not have the opportunity to travel and leave their rural places to experience other cultures and languages.

There are experiences found in the narratives that motivate further study and maintenance of heritage language. Early in life these students experience family responsibility by helping their parents with job tasks, which later evolves into community responsibilities when they realize that being a language/culture broker in their communities is an important role to survive. This generates a sentiment of compassion among the second generation. Upon arriving at college and being given the opportunity to become professional contributors to their communities of origin in rural NY, student participants feel motivated instrumentally to become leaders for social change. This initial sentiment becomes a professional goal when they receive academic support by their higher education institution and find themselves taking a course that prompts them to reflect on the importance of their language and culture for the advancement of the Hispanic community in the U.S.

Grim-Feinberg, Kate. 2007. Strengthening Social Capital through Bilingual Competence in a Transnational Migrant Community: Mexicans in Upstate New York. Journal Compilation, International Migration.  45 (1): 177-208.

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