FYI, this item from the Chicago Tribune discusses first language
education of Hispanic people in the US. Although it does not mention
literacy it does highlight some issues of educating people who have
received most formal education in a second language (in this case,
English) in/about their maternal language. DZO
Spanish for Spanish-speakers
Latino students know their native language, but many never learned
basics like grammar. Schools are offering classes to fill in the gap.
By Ana Beatriz Cholo
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 5, 2006
When Vernon Hills High School freshman Ingrid Marin walked into a
Spanish III class last fall, her peers were like, "What are you doing
After all, Spanish is her native language, and she speaks flawlessly.
But Spanish III has not been easy for Marin, and as the end of the
school year approaches, she has given up on getting an easy A--or even
a B or C.
Marin is like many others who grew up speaking another language at
home or in their native country but never learned the basics of grammar.
As the U.S. Latino population booms, many are forgoing traditional
language classes and enrolling in classes designed just for
them--sometimes called "Heritage Spanish" or "Spanish for Native
Dozens of high schools in Chicago, Round Lake, Highland Park, Glenview
and Mundelein have been offering the classes for years, but more city
and suburban schools are seeing the need to add them to the curriculum.
At the college level, the University of Illinois at Chicago has one of
the largest and oldest programs in the area, and DePaul University and
the University of Chicago offer classes.
Most students take the classes for a language credit, others because
they want to improve their Spanish, especially if they choose to enter
the business world.
The trend gained strength in the southwestern United States in the
1970s and has spread across the nation with the Latino population.
Still, despite the increase in the number of the classes, experts
believe there are still not enough to meet the need--or even an
awareness that they exist. The training necessary for teachers is also
Heritage speakers are natural resources because of their language and
cultural skills, yet they need specialized classes, said Kim Potowski,
a linguistics professor at UIC.
"They never studied it formally and don't know the labels for things
like `conjugate this -er verb in the first person singular of the
subjunctive,'" she said.
"They actually carry out such tasks perfectly well as they speak.
However, foreign-language classes place a premium on this kind of
formal knowledge of language terminology, which heritage speakers
usually do not have," Potowski said.
Some native speakers, for example, are clueless about accents. They
are unaware that misplacing them can change the meaning of a word.
Marin, 15, started the year in Spanish I. The teacher saw how easy it
was for her and sent her to a more advanced class, which proved too
hard. The girl said her peers have a hard time understanding her dilemma.
"[Other students] say, `You should know this,' [but] just because I am
Hispanic, that doesn't mean that I know everything," she said.
After all, grammar and writing were not things she learned around the
Even Marin's father couldn't understand why his daughter was not doing
well in class, until he tried helping her with homework. A Mexican
native who moved to the U.S. as a teenager, he had a hard time with
some of the verb tenses not used in everyday speech.
After watching students like Marin struggle, Vernon Hills High School
language coordinator Cheryl Steffens is working to bring the
specialized classes to the school in fall 2007.
Students usually take a written or oral exam that determines which
class will suit them best. The exam may be their first time writing or
reading in Spanish.
"I feel bad that they have been denied the opportunity during all of
their schooling years," said Potowski, head of the native Spanish
program at UIC.
When teaching Spanish to native speakers, a one-size-fits-all approach
does not work, linguists say. One class could have a student who came
to the U.S. as a teenager, another who was born here and some who grew
up hearing their grandparents speak the language. In addition, the
students often hail from diverse Latin American countries that share
the language but not always the same words. This bond sometimes breeds
camaraderie and makes it easy for students to argue jokingly about who
speaks "correct" Spanish.
For instance, the word "cake" can be bizcocho in Puerto Rico, pastel
in Mexico, torta in Spain, ponque in Colombia, cake without
pronouncing the "k" in Cuba and queque in Bolivia. Round Lake High
School teacher Ken Knapp said working in such a diverse class is like
being in a "one-room schoolhouse."
Unlike mainstream Spanish classes, the goal for teachers is to build
on the knowledge students already have, not harp on minor errors.
Cesar Jimenez gets upset when his mother corrects him.
The Cicero resident grew up speaking Spanish, but in school and with
friends he spoke mostly English. Now he's enrolled in a native
speakers class at UIC.
At the dinner table recently, Jimenez, his brother and cousin chatted
in English. His mother, who speaks only Spanish but understands
English, hovered nearby. They tease her about her mispronunciation of
English words, but Jimenez gets the brunt of the jokes.
He often makes up words.
On that night he grasped for the Spanish word that means "sticky."
"Pegasoso," he finally said.
No, it's pegajoso.
In class, teachers discover students using "Spanglish."
Instead of correcting them, Potowski encourages the idea of Spanish as
a living language. Those Spanglish words could be included someday in
a Spanish dictionary, she said. But if someone writes in an academic
essay, "La rufa esta liqueando" ("the roof is leaking" in informal
Spanish), she would encourage them to search for more formal alternatives.
Native speakers often are self-conscious about how they sound around
educated fluent speakers. They do not realize how far ahead they are.
"The first thing they will say is, `I don't know how to speak
Spanish,'" said Maria Carreira, a native Cuban who teaches at
California State University, Long Beach.
"They carry all this baggage. But then I will ask them, `Have you
watched a Spanish soap opera?' They will say, `Oh yeah.' Now, imagine
how long it would take for an English speaker to get to that level."
For those who grew up in the United States, one's "Latino-ness" is
often tied to language.
For Daniel de los Reyes of Chicago, Spanish is the language of his
parents, his people and his culture. But when it comes to the grammar,
de los Reyes, 23, gives up in frustration.
Growing up, his grandmother spoke to him in Spanish, but English was
his dominant language. The worst part is when his cousins in Mexico
tease him and call him a gringo or an Americano.
"I just want it to come naturally," de los Reyes said while sitting
outside recently with classmates from a "Spanish for Students of
Hispanic Background" class at UIC. "I won't even finish a sentence [in
Spanish]. I will just skip over to English. I am Latino and I should
be able to speak Spanish."
"I don't get it."