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Going Beyond Motivation and Exploring Limits:

The Maintenance of Spanish as a Heritage Language in Washington

Hayley Elston
Honors 394 A: Language that Binds Us
Dr. Soohee Kim
11 June 2015

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In my midterm paper, I concluded that there are factors working in favor of maintenance of
Spanish as a heritage language, such as Spanishs strong presence in the media and the large and
growing number of speakers in the U.S., but that the prospects for maintenance sustained
independently of immigration rates, and beyond the first generation, are unclear. In order to
explore this question more, I decided to examine maintenance prospects from the heritage
speakers perspective, the parents perspective, and the educators perspective.
In order to explore the educational perspective at the elementary level, I visited Seattle
Amistad School, a private Spanish-English dual immersion elementary school. I conducted
personal interviews, which I will discuss in later sections, with Monica Alperovich, a teacher,
and Mara Ima, a parent whose children attend the school. I also talked to Farin Houk, the head
of school, in order to understand more about the school and its founding. Seattle Amistad is
currently kindergarten through second grade, with the grade range expanding as the first cohort
of students ages. There are about 65 students currently, with the school growing by 15-18
students each year. Farin founded the school in order to provide a dual-immersion education,
which she said is the most effective method for teaching languages. She said that Seattle is
behind on bilingual education, and getting parents to enroll their children goes against the
curve. She observed that families, including Spanish speakers, are nervous about it. These
remarks speak to the way bilingualism is underappreciated in society, which I will discuss again
in a later section. Heritage speaker enrollment at Seattle Amistad is a bit unclear. Monica said
only two of her students were heritage speakers, but Farin estimated that a quarter of the students
are native English speakers, a quarter are native Spanish speakers, and half grew up bilingual
(heritage speakers).

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In my interview with Monica, two concepts stood out. The first was
socioeconomic/educational equity and its effects on heritage language maintenance. When I
asked her if she thought students learning Spanish as a second language would help with heritage
language maintenance, she replied, Thats a tricky question...most of the heritage kids in this
country, unfortunately--not all of them, but a huge percentage of it--they come from lower
income families. So they will not have the opportunity to be in a school like this, or they will be
forced--not forced but uh--they will not notice the importance of being bilingual as much as the
other parents As she said, many Hispanics hold jobs of lower occupational status (Kocchar,
2005), which can make it difficult to afford private schools like Seattle Amistad. Additionally,
bilingualism is not highly valued in the can be seen as an educational afterthought. Even
if it is valued by upper-middle class parents, their value of it and decision to raise bilingual
children may not cross over to lower income families. I also extrapolated from Monicas
comments that parents working blue collar jobs that keep them busy and exhausted may not the
time to focus on teaching their children Spanish besides speaking it to them. To sum up, higher
socioeconomic status helps a lot with heritage language maintenance, but it is an advantage
many Spanish-speaking parents lack.
Monica and I also discussed the limitations of the educational system. Her children started out
in bilingual education, and her child was completely bilingual by fifth grade. However, after fifth
grade, the half day of Spanish education became only an hour a day, with a non-native speaker as
a teacher. She said, My kiddo in high like I dont see why Im doing this... I mean,
theyre learning basic vocabulary. Though she said some high schools on the Eastside offer
bilingual education, and some access to Spanish is better than none, Monica said that parents

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expectations were not met. The public school resources do not meet the heritage speakers
specific needs.
I also wanted to look at education at the college level, so I interviewed Mara Gillman, a
pioneer and instructor of the heritage track Spanish courses at the University of Washington. She
said that she teaches her classes with culture as the centerpiece. Maras teaching methods
seemed excellent to me, with a focus on connecting Spanish to students personal experiences
and real-world issues. However, an education so well-tailored to heritage speakers is generally
only available at the college level, which, like private school, is only available to people of
higher socioeconomic status. Again, we see the economic barriers that can hinder heritage
When I asked Mara about maintenance prospects, she said that the picture looks promising,
but work needs to be done. There needs to be awareness among parents of the importance of
bilingualism. Awarding value to bilingualism, through programs such as the Seal of Biliteracy,
can help with this. She also noted that there is a gap between the research on heritage language
learners and the public school pedagogy, and that disconnect needs to be addressed. Devaluation
of bilingualism also came up when I spoke to Farin at Seattle Amistad, who said that Spanishspeaking parents face more criticism than English-speaking-only parents when they choose to
enroll their children in bilingual education. Namely, they are questioned for teaching their
children Spanish before they teach them English. In addition to the devaluation of bilingualism
in our society, Spanish speakers also face discrimination. We have all seen the anti-Latino, antiimmigrant, and anti-Spanish-speaking sentiments held by many people in the United States.
According to Barker et al. (2001, p. 16), a study by Ruggiero, Taylor, and Lambert (1996)
suggests that the more discrimination Hispanics experience, the less likely they are to maintain

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their heritage language. Both the undervaluation of bilingualism and the prejudice against
Hispanics in this country worsen the prospects for the maintenance of Spanish as a heritage
To hear from parents of heritage speakers, I spoke to Mara Ima, a native speaker from
Nicaragua whose children attend Seattle Amistad. She said that her children were isolated in
their English-speaking preschool, and that they were neglected by unhelpful teachers. She and
her husband decided to raise their children in an exclusively Spanish-language environment,
knowing that soon after the kids started school, English would often take center stage. At Seattle
Amistad, Mara Ima feels her children are much more involved, and the warm spirit of the
teachers is reminiscent of home, which provides her children access to their culture in addition to
their language. I asked her if it is important to her that her grandchildren speak Spanish, and she
said absolutely, because Spanish is connected to lifestyle. Her response, in addition to my
midterm interviewee Guillermos intention to teach his children to Spanish, indicates to me that
Spanish speakers certainly have the desire to pass on their language, but societal and situational
factors can get in the way. However, this desire is not universal, as Mara Imas brother disagrees
with her decision to raise her children with so much exposure to Spanish. Mara Ima believes
that knowing the grammar is essential to speaking Spanish properly, which influenced my view
that a formalized written education is important for maintenance. She also said that she was able
to have the experience and make the decisions she did thanks in part to her spouses support of a
bilingual/bicultural upbringing, and without him it would have been hard. I concluded from this
that a supportive environment is necessary for parents to make efforts toward heritage language
maintenance. Interestingly, Mara values not only her own bilingualism, but bilingualism in
general, as she would want her children to know any two languages, i.e., the two most useful in

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whatever country they lived in. This suggests that part of her motivation for teaching her children
Spanish is the fact that it is widely spoken in the U.S. Mara Ima also said that her childrens
generation is allowed to speak Spanish more so than their predecessors, and they should take
advantage of that.
I also spoke to Maria Schonander, a native speaker from Colombia, about her experience with
her children learning their heritage language. She said that when her family moved to the U.S.,
her five-year-old daughter had to transition from being very well-spoken in Spanish to not
knowing English as well. She said her daughter decided not to speak Spanish for two years
because she wanted to fit in. However, Maria kept speaking Spanish at home, mainly because as
Latin-Americans, um, the expressive language, especially at home, the way one talks to kids, the
love one expresses to them, or the madness one expresses to them, it doesnt come right, unless it
is in your own language. She spoke Spanish with her daughter not only because she wanted her
to learn it for its usefulness, but also in order to express herself fully. Later, her daughter was a
little more proud of having a bilingual family. She continued, More than the language, I think
its the culture that makes an impact in children with multicultural families. Of course, language
is a part of it, but its everything that comes with the language that is important. It is not the same
as if I were Mexican, the fact that I am Colombian...there are subtleties in the language and in the
way one grows up. Maria said her kids main motivation is to be able to speak to their
Colombian grandparents. Her daughter speaks Spanish very well now, and studies it in school.
Maria also emphasized the importance of studying Spanish to learn the grammar, and that
grammar makes the difference between speaking it to survive and being able to express
opinions. Her 10-year-old son is still not very interested in studying Spanish, but after seeing her
daughters experience, she feels it will work out.

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Maria Schonander and I also discussed how Spanish speakers are received in the United
States. She said, one of the things, coming to the United States, that, to be honest, bothers a lot
of hispanohablantes [Spanish speakers] is that in the United States, most of the people assume
that everybody comes from Mexico. Even like Mexicos a continent and everybodys coming
from there. She also said, regarding her strong accent, that just that--that puts you in a box.
And sometimes you dont want that. Making assumptions and putting people in boxes are
micro-aggressions that can discourage Spanish speakers from speaking and learning their
language. However, she also said that in Seattle, compared to cities with larger Hispanic
populations, Spain and Latin America are grouped together in cultural events, but this is a good
thing. There is balance to be found between generalizing about Spanish speakers and allowing
for a multicultural but monolingual community.
In addition to her story of her daughters gradual acceptance of her heritage language, Maria
made several other comments related to maintenance prospects. She said that when her children
and the children of her Spanish-speaking friends get together, they speak English among
themselves, only speaking Spanish with their parents. Guillermo, the heritage speaker I
interviewed for my midterm, also said he mainly speaks Spanish with his parents and English
with his peers, and that Spanish speakers often speak English because it is easier. Though this
practice is understandable, I think it is one of the aspects that negatively impacts Spanishs
maintenance prospects. On the positive side, Maria was firm about the importance of her
language and culture and her kids learning it. She said, Ones culture and ones language stays
with you forever...I think that its important that [my children] feel at least half-Colombian. I
really want to keep being who I am and get the kids to be proud of it. When I asked her
specifically about maintenance prospects, she said:

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I think that Spanish language is definitely going to continue growing, not only through
people with background or heritage from Latin America or Spain, but same with
Americans from everywhere. Its going to become a necessity to be able to speak
Spanish. For example, in this household, Swedish is another language...that we dont
speak. Why? Because its not useful. Its only useful when we go over there. If they want
to? Yeah. But the only other language that they have to speak is Spanish...People go to
school and pay thousands of dollars to learn another language and you have it here day to
day, so you have to take that advantage and do it.
Maria Schonanders and Mara Imas experiences demonstrates the determination and motivation
that they, and likely many other parents, have to maintain and pass on their language and culture
in spite of obstacles, both because of the inherent personal value of ones language and the
usefulness of Spanish.
In comparing what I learned about Spanish to my presentation teammates findings, Spanish is
a bit of a special case, as it is so widely spoken and accessible, but our observations also had a lot
in common. For all of our interviewees, language is very important and very much intertwined
with culture. However, while the Thai speakers Alex spoke to mainly value Thai in the context of
their family, Arabic and Spanish speakers also value its usefulness--Mara Ima and Maria
Schonander both mentioned Spanishs usefulness as a reason they taught Spanish to their
children. Daina and I both observed the way societys perception of immigrants and Chinese or
Latino people affects heritage speakers.
Looking at all my interviews, it is clear to me that many parents have a strong motivation,
both emotional and practical, to pass down Spanish through the generations. However, factors
such as socioeconomic/educational inequity and our societys bias against bilingualism and

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Spanish speakers can present major obstacles. Heritage speakers need educational resources to
learn and explore their heritage language, but these resources are often financially inaccessible to
the large proportion of Spanish speakers from lower income families. Heritage speakers also
need encouragement and a supportive environment to speak their language, but U.S. society
often provides the opposite. Still, Spanish is becoming more widely accepted as a major
language of the United States, and I hope it will also become socially and culturally accepted.
Such ideological progress, and the growing number of speakers, would increase demand for
more accessible educational resources for Spanish speakers. If society can surmount these
barriers and capitalize on Spanishs strong presence in the United States, the maintenance
prospects for Spanish as a heritage language will be not just relatively good, but truly excellent.

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Reference List
Barker, V., Giles, H., Noels, K., Duck, J., Hecht, M. L., & Clement, R. (March 01, 2001). The
English-only movement: a communication analysis of changing perceptions of language
vitality. Journal of Communication, 51, 1, 3-37. Retrieved from
Kocchar, Rakesh. (2005). The Occupational Status and Mobility of Hispanics. Pew Research
Center: Hispanic Trends. Retrieved 11 June, 2015, from