Heritage Spanish: A Forum for Language, Learning & Teaching

College of Letters & Sciences: Dr. Agustina Carando (Spanish & Portuguese), Dr. Claudia Sánchez-Gutiérrez (Spanish & Portuguese), Sophia Minnillo (Linguistics), Paloma Fernández-Mira (Spanish & Portuguese), Sam Davidson (Linguistics), Blanca Peraza (Spanish & Portuguese), Ana Ortega Perez (Spanish & Portuguese)

College of Engineering: Dr. Kenji Sagae (Computer Science)

School of Education: Dr. Margarita Jiménez-Silva (Teacher Education)


Summary. Our cross-college research team is composed of faculty members and graduate students from the College of Letters & Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the School of Education. We share an interest in studying the language features, learning experiences, and teaching practices related to heritage speakers of Spanish in the U.S. Heritage speakers are members of a language community who grow up with exposure to the language primarily in home and community contexts, not in academic and institutional contexts. As the heritage speaker community is an under-represented population in education and linguistics research, and an under-served population in U.S. schools, it is essential to increase awareness through scholarship and outreach, bridging the gap between academic findings and pedagogical choices in the classrooms.

Background. About one-fifth of the U.S. population speaks a minority language at home. Generally, factors such as a lack of bilingual programs, bilingual teachers, and/or literacy materials, coupled with the absence of extended family and social attitudes about bilingualism, can result in very limited opportunities for children to meaningfully practice and develop the heritage language over time. In the case of heritage speakers of Spanish, it is not until college that many of our students get to experience the language in a classroom setting for the first time. 

At UC Davis, we are proud to offer a program specifically designed for heritage speakers of Spanish: a three-course series with a specialized tutoring component. All students enrolled there identify themselves as Chicanx/Latinx, a demographic that has been consistently growing and constitutes the largest proportion of applicants systemwide for Fall 2021. With our campus striving to become a Hispanic Serving Institution, this program provides a valuable community of peers that contributes to students feeling more welcome, promoting not only language maintenance but also student retention and academic success.  

Proposal. Our research team has worked for the last four years on the COWS-L2H corpus, which includes over 1 million words written by students who are enrolled in all of the lower-division Spanish courses at UC Davis, including those in the program for heritage speakers, who now represent more than 500 of the corpus participants. Most recently, we have utilized the corpus data to examine heritage learners’ development of writing complexity. We hope this first investigation will serve as a springboard that will generate interest from related fields and follow-up studies to complement our findings. Additionally, we are creating a website that will allow scholars and teachers from around the world to easily access the corpus and learn about our projects. As we seek ways to share this resource with the larger community, the trans-college cluster grant will provide an ideal opportunity to develop a collaborative network of stakeholders in Spanish heritage language education.

Significance. While the field of heritage language studies has flourished over the past twenty years, advances in our knowledge about the challenges facing heritage speakers has often failed to reach practitioners “on the ground” and translate into actual pedagogical innovations, which would impact the students themselves and lead to improved outcomes. Our overarching goal, then, is to not only contribute to inter-college research on heritage Spanish, but also to serve as a forum of stakeholders and, ultimately, a bridge into our community’s bilingual classrooms.