Prospective Bilingual Teachers’ Perceptions of the Importance of their Heritage Language
Alma Dolores Rodríguez, University of Texas at Brownsville
This article describes the results of a study of future bilingual teachers’ perspectives on the importance of Spanish, their heritage language, in their careers. The study examined the participants’ experiences with Spanish throughout their education, their perceptions of the role of Spanish instruction in their teacher preparation program, and their anticipation of its importance in their teaching careers. The results show that prospective bilingual teachers have developed varying levels of academic Spanish proficiency before entering the university, and that they consider the academic Spanish instruction in their teacher preparation program to be adequate. The participants expect to benefit from this instruction as they pursue their teaching careers.
I expect to learn how to properly speak the Spanish language and I hope I can also learn how to properly write it too. My accomplishment would have to be for me to become very fluent (in the proper way) so I can then transfer that ability to my future students.
Above is a response of a future bilingual teacher when asked about her expectations of university courses taught in Spanish. At the time she was interviewed, this student was enrolled in a bilingual education teacher preparation program at a university located in the southern tip of Texas on the border with Mexico.
The development of academic Spanish knowledge is an important component in the preparation of bilingual teachers in the southern tip of Texas. Hispanics comprise 44.7% of the student population of Texas (Texas Education Agency, 2005), and 96% of students in the southern tip of Texas, where thirty-six percent of the total student population is currently enrolled in bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) programs (Texas Education Agency, 2003). Moreover, many students who are not currently enrolled in bilingual programs at one time participated in such programs before they developed English proficiency and were transitioned to all-English instruction. Therefore, English/Spanish bilingual teachers are in great demand in this part of the state.
Research on Bilingual Education
Numerous studies have been conducted to identify the most effective models of instruction for English Language Learners (ELLs). Research has shown that instruction in the students’ heritage language is beneficial for ELLs (Collier, 1992; Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005; Thomas & Collier, 2002). Ramirez et al. (1991) and Thomas and Collier (2002) conducted longitudinal studies to evaluate the long-term effect of various instructional models for ELLs. Ramirez et al. (1991) found that when ELLs receive long-term instruction in their heritage language, their performance in all content areas is superior to that of ELLs who do not receive this type of instruction. In addition, researchers have concluded that heritage language instruction is not an obstacle to the acquisition of English. Thomas and Collier (2002) argue that enrichment bilingual education is the only instructional model that closes the achievement gap between ELLs and English dominant students. They also found that ELLs in these programs perform at high levels in all content areas in both languages, while ELLs in transitional programs perform significantly lower.
Collier (1992) synthesized a series of longitudinal studies to determine the most effective program model for ELLs. She found a positive correlation of heritage language instruction and higher academic achievement in English for ELLs, and identified enrichment and maintenance bilingual models as the most effective. Finally, Rolstad et al. (2005) conducted a meta-analysis to determine the effectiveness of various bilingual education programs. Like the other researchers, they found that instruction in the students’ heritage language and English is more effective than all-English instruction for ELLs. Moreover, they identified long-term bilingual programs as more effective than short-term transitional programs. To summarize, recent research studies of numerous bilingual programs have found that long-term instruction in the heritage language produces higher academic achievement both in English and the students’ heritage language. The academic success of ELLs therefore depends on teachers who are qualified to provide appropriate heritage language instruction.
Bilingual Teachers’ Heritage Language Proficiency
The high levels of language proficiency needed by bilingual teachers take time to develop. According to Avila (as cited by Riegelhaupt & Carrasco, 2000) it takes monolingual speakers of Spanish in Mexico about 600 hours of instruction to develop literacy skills. This figure suggests that bilingual teachers in the United States require extensive formal heritage language instruction to develop native-like proficiency and literacy skills in Spanish. Many bilingual teachers have not received such instruction; in fact, Guerrero (1997) notes that bilingual education teachers generally have limited experience with academic Spanish before they start teaching. To complicate matters, bilingual teachers are not only responsible for teaching reading and writing. Wong Fillmore and Snow (as cited by Meyers, 2004) advocate that bilingual teachers help students develop academic skills in all subject areas. Some bilingual models teach subject areas other than language in Spanish, and teachers need to be ready to teach those subjects.
Conversational and Academic Language
The difference between conversational and academic language was first established by Cummins, who coined the terms Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) to refer to conversational language and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) for academic language (Cummins, 1981).
BICS are learned through everyday interactions and exposure to language and typically develop in two to three years. Speakers are able to support BICS in the use of gestures, body language or otherwise drawing on context. BICS are not limited to listening and speaking skills and also include simple reading and writing needed in everyday situations (Ovando, Combs, & Collier, 2006).
CALP, or academic language, on the other hand, is much more complex. It is also known as the language of school since it is required for academic achievement. CALP develops as students receive complex instruction and engage in demanding academic tasks. Because of its complexity, academic language takes anywhere from four to ten years to develop (Ovando, Combs, & Collier, 2006).
Cummins (1999) understands conversational and academic language as two different, but not separate dimensions of language development. Both dimensions are necessary and therefore, as Ovando, Combs, & Collier (2006) state, “a good teacher incorporates social and academic language development into every lesson” (p. 129).
Academic language and standard language are not synonymous. Standard language can be defined as a “fixed, and correct form of a language against which we can measure a given sample of that language” or as “the language of the group in power” (Lessow-Hurley, 2005, p. 35). In addition to standard language, other language variants develop that meet the communicative needs of speakers in particular regions and social classes. In border communities, including where this study was conducted, speakers often practice code-switching, which is “the alternate use of two languages from sentence to sentence, or even within one sentence” (Lessow-Hurley, 2005, p. 38). Moreover, speakers living on the US/Mexico border speak a dialect that is locally referred to as Spanglish or TexMex. Many future bilingual teachers in the area have grown up hearing or speaking this dialect. Lessow-Hurley (2005) points out that while monolingual individuals often disparage code-switching and dialects, linguists who have studied code-switching characterize it as “a systematic and rule-governed language behavior” (Lessow-Hurley, 2005, p. 38).
Because heritage language instruction is beneficial for ELLs, it is important that future bilingual teachers in southern Texas become proficient in their heritage language, including academic Spanish, to meet their pupils’ needs.
Purpose and Questions
Three research questions were addressed:
- What experiences have participants had with the Spanish language?
- How do they perceive the importance of academic Spanish as a part of their teacher preparation program?
- How do they perceive the importance of academic Spanish in their future performance as bilingual teachers?
A pilot survey was designed based on an instrument by Sutterby and Ayala (2005). The survey was piloted with 24 university students pursuing their degree in bilingual education.
An analysis of the instrument was conducted and its quality was improved. A few questions were added, based on an instrument designed by Meyers (2004). The new instrument contains ten demographic questions, seven open-ended questions, and ten multiple-choice questions that included an open-ended justification for their choice.
Converse and Presser (1986) note that responses to survey questions are influenced by the order in which questions are asked. Therefore, the questions were ordered carefully, according to which research question they addressed.
The survey included both open-ended and multiple-choice questions. The open-ended questions focused on the subjects’ experiences with Spanish and allowed the researcher to analyze the responses qualitatively (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996). The multiple-choice questions provided all participants with the same frame of reference (Converse & Presser, 1986). However, due to the qualitative nature of the study, participants were given an opportunity to justify their responses.
The responses to the instrument were analyzed systematically. Participants were placed into two groups based on their answers to demographic questions. As answers by themes were analyzed, comparisons were established between the two groups. Patterns were also identified among the open-ended responses (Fowler, 1995), and similar responses were grouped together. Finally, the percentage of participants providing the same or similar responses was calculated (Gay & Airasian, 1992).
The community surrounding the university where the study was conducted is highly bilingual (Sutterby & Ayala, 2005). Spanish is frequently heard both in the community and at the university, and Spanish and English are often used in a single conversation. Some individuals speak Spanglish or TexMex. Standard English and Spanish are used often and understood by many.
Study participants were juniors and seniors pursuing a degree in bilingual education and certification by the state of Texas to become elementary school teachers. Their program requires them to take bilingual methods courses in Spanish and Spanish courses offered by the Department of Modern Languages.
Forty students participated in the study, thirty-eight females and two males, most of whom were 25 years old or younger. They were born either in Mexico or the U.S., and most self-identified either as Hispanic or Latino/a, Mexican American, or Mexican. Table 1 shows data on participants' length of residence in the U.S. and the education they had received outside the U.S.
|Length of Residence in U.S.*||10 years or more||6-9 years||3-5 years||1-2 years||Lives Outside of U.S.|
|Education Outside of U.S.||None||Some/All Elem. School||Through Some Middle School||Through Some/All High school||Through College|
* one participant did not respond to this question.
Participants were assigned to one of two groups depending on their educational history. The 26 participants who were educated entirely in the U.S. was Group A. Another 14 participants (Group B) received some education outside the United States. An analysis of the participants’ open-ended responses revealed that all Group B participants received that portion of their education in Mexico.
This study had several limitations. The small sample size (40 participants) was the first limitation. In addition, the survey was conducted anonymously. Anonymity is considered a limitation because the researcher did not have the opportunity to follow up with participants to seek clarification or further explanation of responses (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996). Finally, this study was conducted in a unique area of the United States, and generalizations based on its results may not be applicable. Nevertheless, the study yielded interesting and relevant information for bilingual teacher preparation and heritage language preservation.
Discussion of Results
Research Question One
Participants were asked to describe their experiences with Spanish from childhood in the home through college.
Language/s Used at Home
The participants’ responses fell into three categories: either their first language was Spanish, they were exposed to both English and Spanish at home, or they were only exposed to English.
Spanish was the first language of 80% of Group A participants, who received all their education in the United States. Forty-eight percent of Group A members were raised by monolingual speakers of Spanish. One participant described her experiences as follows: “My mom, who raised me, spoke only Spanish. She learned English through me.” Several participants (14%) referred to academic experiences with Spanish at home as they were growing up. They mentioned exposure to texts including stories, signs, and instructions. One participant described her experiences with Spanish at home as strictly conversational. Fourteen percent of the participants stated that they lost Spanish when they entered school. One participant recalled: “I spoke only in Spanish as a child up until I attended K-5 and learned English. Thereafter the language that dominated was English. I hardly ever spoke Spanish.”
Twelve percent of Group A participants were exposed to English and Spanish by their parents, a situation that can result in the heritage language being lost. One participant related:
My parents both speak Spanish, but my father was fluent in English. When I was growing up my first language was Spanish, but my father also spoke ... English .... Now as adults my sisters and I have problems speaking Spanish.
One Group A participant said that he was spoken to only in English as he was growing up, and one participant did not respond to this item.
All Group B participants, who received some education in Mexico, indicated that Spanish was their first language. However, their experiences and exposure to Spanish varied. Thirty-six percent of this group described academic experiences with Spanish at home, such as being able to read and taught to write. The remaining participants did not mention academic experiences with Spanish.
Spanish Instruction in Elementary School: Participants were asked to describe their experiences with their heritage language in elementary school. Their experiences were placed into three categories: participants who had no heritage language instruction at the elementary level, those who received bilingual or ESL instruction in the United States, and those who received all Spanish instruction in Mexico.
Slightly more than half (58%) of Group A participants had no heritage language instruction or support at the elementary level. One participant recalled that Spanish was spoken in playground settings but that instruction was conducted in English. Another found school difficult because English was the language of instruction. About half of the participants recalled negative attitudes towards their heritage language. Two participants recalled being asked to speak English only. Others were ridiculed by peers for being Spanish speakers. Another attributes her loss of Spanish to all-English instruction in elementary school.
The remaining Group A participants were in bilingual or ESL programs in elementary school. Most recalled being in these programs for a short time and making a quick transition to all English instruction in the first or second grade. Because these participants were instructed in Spanish for a short time, their experiences with the language were limited.
Some Group B participants received all their elementary schooling outside the United States while others immigrated to this country during elementary school. Sixty-four percent of Group B received their entire elementary education in Mexico. In general, these participants recalled positive experiences of their instruction in the dominant language. One participant said: “My experiences with Spanish at the elementary level were very easy because with the help of my parents I learned that language and I didn’t have any difficulties.”
Thirty-six percent of Group B participants received some instruction in Mexico, most up to the second grade, but they finished their elementary education in the United States. Although two participants did not specify the instruction they received in the United States, 14% of them recalled being placed in bilingual or ESL programs. One participant was placed in all English instruction upon arrival to this country. She shared the following memories: “I was not allowed to talk in Spanish so I had to learn English very quickly. I already knew how to read and write Spanish anyway.” In general, these participants acquired some literacy skills in Spanish before making the transition to English.
Spanish Instruction in Secondary School
Participants were also asked to describe their experiences with their heritage language at the secondary school level. These experiences fell into three categories: high quality academic experiences in Spanish, basic academic experiences, and no academic experiences.
Fifty-seven percent of Group A, who were educated entirely in the United States, responded that they had no academic instruction in Spanish at the secondary level. Most of that group recalled using Spanish outside the classroom, and many recalled speaking Spanish with friends and/or at home. A couple of participants recalled negative experiences, including negativity towards pupils who spoke Spanish.
Twenty-seven percent of Group A participants reported receiving basic academic instruction in Spanish at the secondary level and having taken Spanish by choice. One participant had difficulties with Spanish; another was embarrassed that she barely passed her course. Only eight percent of Group A participants described having high quality experiences with Spanish at the secondary level. One participant had a pen pall from Spain and recalls enjoying the experience. An additional 8% of Group A participants did not answer this item.
Sixty-four percent of Group B participants, who received all or part of their education in Mexico, were instructed in Spanish at the secondary level. They described their academic experiences as high quality since Spanish was the primary language of instruction. One participant recalled extensive reading of literature; another shared positive memories: “I learned so many things that I still remember. Concepts, terminology, Mexican poems, many things that I still love and remember with joy.” The remaining Group B participants were schooled in the United States at the secondary level. Twenty nine percent of this group did not receive heritage language instruction at the secondary level. One participant chose to take French rather than Spanish. One Group B member received basic instruction in Spanish in junior high school and did not find it difficult.
Spanish Instruction on College Level
Participants gave varied reports on
Spanish college-level Spanish instruction. Fifty-seven percent of Group A reported that they had successful instruction
at the university level and considered Spanish skills essential for becoming
bilingual teachers. Participants also recognized the positive benefits of formal
academic instruction in Spanish. Several commented on learning “proper”
Spanish, expanding reading and writing skills, and improving vocabulary.
The remaining (35%) Group A participants responded that they had difficulty studying their heritage language at the university level. Their comments also focused on the rules and use of what most called “proper” Spanish. At the same time, these participants see the need to become proficient in their heritage language. One participant explained her situation as follows:
At the university level, Spanish has come back to haunt me. I decided
to be a bilingual teacher, and now I fear that my Spanish is not the correct form that I need to know to be able to teach the students.
Eight percent of Group A participants did not respond to this question.
Eighty-six percent of Group B participants reported having successful experiences with Spanish at the university level. This was expected since they received at least some and sometimes all of their previous schooling in Mexico. However, these participants still valued Spanish instruction and believed that they benefited from it. One participant who only received instruction in Mexico at the elementary level answered:
I found out many things I always thought I had mastered in my native language. It was shocking to find out how many incorrect words I had used all my life. Taking the Spanish courses at the university level has improved my Spanish language in all aspects.
Two participants who received all their formal education in Mexico mentioned the culture shock they experienced when they started their college education in the United States. One of them wrote:
I learned when I first entered [this institution] that the majority of the students were not able to speak a correct Spanish, they were likely to mix both languages within a conversation. Now I know this is not bad, but it is just different.
Only one Group B participant reported experiencing difficulty with Spanish at the university level. This individual only received instruction in Mexico at the elementary level, and expressed a belief that she is studying what she should already know. One participant did not respond to this item. As noted, many participants did not consider their Spanish proficiency to be adequate.
Research Question Two
The second research question concerned the importance of academic Spanish in the participants' academic program. Specifically, they were asked how much Spanish should be used in various aspects of their bilingual methods courses, and what they expected to gain from university courses taught in Spanish.
Table 2 summarizes the responses to these questions. It shows the percentage of respondents who believed that Spanish should be used for a particular amount of time on specific activities. Table 2 also compares the responses of Group A (n=26), who received all their education in the U.S., and Group B (n=14), who received some or all of their education outside of the U.S. before enrolling in their current program. Responses ranged from a belief that Spanish should be used all the time to a view that it should not be used at all.
Respondents’ Answers on Ideal Use of Spanish in Bilingual Methods Courses (by
percent and according to activity)
|Activity||Time Spanish Ideally Used||Group A Responses||Group B Responses|
|Lecture and Discussion||100%||19%||21%|
|More than 75%||19%||14%|
|Less than 25%||8%||7%|
|More than 75%||23%||21%|
|50%||50%||43%||Less than 25%||8%||14%|
|More than 75%||23%||21%|
|Less than 25%||12%||--|
|Less than 25%||12%||7%|
Lecture and Discussion: Participants from both groups gave similar responses, and most believed that lecture and discussion should be held in Spanish from 50 to 100% of the time, which they expected would help them improve their Spanish. Participants also tended to disparage their heritage language proficiency.
Reading Assignments: Most participants from both groups favored reading in Spanish anywhere from 50 to 100% of the time in bilingual methods courses, and they expected that reading would improve their knowledge of grammar. As in their answers to previous questions, respondents tended to refer to standard Spanish as “proper” and “correct”.
Writing Assignments: Groups A and B expressed somewhat different preferences. Group B participants favored Spanish writing more than Group A participants. Those who preferred to write in Spanish expressed a desire to improve their Spanish, although it should be noted that research has not shown that language production (i.e., speaking, writing) contributes to language acquisition as much as comprehensible input (i.e., listening, reading) (Krashen, 1998).
Assessments: Most participants from both groups thought that 50% of assessments should be conducted in Spanish, and considered it important for their development in academic Spanish. Smaller but also similar numbers of Group A and B participants responded that more than 75% of assessments should be conducted in Spanish. But Group A and Group B participants differed substantially on the question of conducting assessments only in Spanish or only in English.
Expectations for Courses Conducted in Spanish: The participants’ responses fell into two categories: those who expressed a desire to become good bilingual teachers and those who expected to “improve” their Spanish language proficiency. Participants from both groups in the first category expected that bilingual methods courses in Spanish would help them become better teachers.
The majority of participants in Groups A and Group B fit into the second category. They expressed a desire to increase their Spanish language proficiency. Many mentioned the desire to improve their knowledge of academic Spanish by learning more terminology and hoped to improve their ability to teach and talk about teaching in Spanish. Their responses centered around “improv[ing] Spanish overall.” They mentioned all language skills and emphasized the correct use of forms. Several participants linked an increase in Spanish proficiency with the outcome of becoming better teachers.
Research Question Three
The study's third research question sought participants' views on the role of Spanish in their careers. Participants were asked to specify the ideal level of proficiency for bilingual teachers, whether they should be proficient in academic Spanish, and which languages and registers bilingual teachers require for use with their students, parents, and colleagues.
Proficiency in Spanish: Eighty-three percent of the participants believed bilingual that they should have equal levels of English and Spanish proficiency. Fifteen percent stated that bilingual teachers should have stronger levels of Spanish than English. Interestingly, half of these participants belonged to Group A, and half belonged to Group B. Both groups based their responses on bilingual teachers’ need to teach students from Mexico. One participant, educated in the U.S., responded that bilingual teachers have to possess stronger English language skills to give pupils increased contact with English.
Importance of Academic Spanish Proficiency: Ninety-three percent of the participants considered it important for bilingual teachers to develop academic Spanish proficiency. This response denotes an understanding of the conversational-academic language continuum. Respondents expanded on their answer by expressing a need to teach academic concepts using the appropriate type of language, which shows an understanding of academic language as the language of school. Only two participants stated that it was not important for bilingual teachers to be proficient in academic Spanish. One of these participants belonged to Group A, and considered academic Spanish incompatible with the Spanish spoken locally. It is interesting to note that this individual also said that she was reprimanded in elementary school for speaking Spanish. The other participant who thought academic Spanish was unimportant for bilingual teachers was from Group B, and wrote that she did not think children from this area would understand academic Spanish. Both these responses equate academic Spanish to “correct” Spanish, rather than understanding it as a requirement to function and succeed in school. (One participant did not respond to this item.)
Participants were asked which languages and registers they expected to need with their future English language learning students. They were asked to choose all that would apply among Academic English, Academic Spanish, Conversational English, and Conversational Spanish, and were given the opportunity to justify their response. Table 3 shows that most participants, 35% of Group A and 50% of Group B, stated that they would need both academic and conversational English and Spanish to communicate with their future students and to impart instruction. In addition, 19% of Group A participants stated that academic English and Spanish would be needed to teach ELLs in a bilingual setting. As can be noted, the majority of participants recognized the need to use both languages and both academic and conversational registers in the bilingual classroom.
|Language/Register||Group A||Group B|
|Academic and Conversational English and Spanish||35%||50%|
|Academic English||8%||7%||Academic Spanish||15%||--|
|Academic English and Spanish||19%||7%|
|Conversational English and Spanish||4%||14%|
|Academic and Conversational English||8%||7%|
|Academic and Conversational Spanish||--||14%|
Table 4 shows which languages and registers participants expected to use for communication with their students’ parents. Those who expected to need academic and conversational English and Spanish commented that they would be called on to discuss academic issues and speak with parents less formally. Some participants who answered that teachers would need both academic and conversational Spanish to communicate with parents may have supposed that many parents of ELLs would not understand English; one comment was: “a teacher should speak to them in the language that they understand.”
|Language/Register||Group A||Group B|
|Academic and Conversational English and Spanish||19%||21%|
|Academic English||8%||--||Academic Spanish||15%||7%|
|Academic English and Spanish||8%||7%|
|Conversational English and Spanish||8%||14%|
|Academic and Conversational English||15%||--|
|Academic and Conversational Spanish||8%||29%|
Table 5 shows participants’ answers to which language and registers were needed to speak with elementary school colleagues and administrators. Group A and B participants had differing views of this question. Fewer Group A than Group B members expected to use academic and conversational English and Spanish. Participants who expected to use academic English placed a greater importance on academic language when talking to colleagues and/or superiors. Those from both groups who answered that they would only use academic English added that English should be spoken in school and that the use of English would make it possible for teachers to communicate professionally, suggesting that they equated the notion of professionalism with the use of academic English.
|Language/Register||Group A||Group B|
|Academic and Conversational English and Spanish||35%||57%|
|Academic English||23%||21%||Academic Spanish||4%||--|
|Academic English and Spanish||23%||7%|
|Conversational English and Spanish||--||7%|
|Academic and Conversational English||8%||7%|
|Academic and Conversational Spanish||4%||--|
Among participants' varying choices, “conversational and academic English and Spanish” was the most popular response overall. This indicates that most respondents were aware of the necessity of using a variety of registers in both languages.
Conclusions and Implications
Analyzing the data resulted in several conclusions. First, participants educated in Mexico had higher levels of academic Spanish proficiency than their United States-educated counterparts. Second, the limited experiences of U.S.-educated participants with academic Spanish resulted in lower levels of academic Spanish proficiency than they wished to have. Nevertheless, both Group A and Group B participants believed that the use of Spanish in their teacher preparation course work was helpful in the development of academic Spanish proficiency and that they needed Spanish proficiency to be effective. Moreover, some participants confuse their TexMex dialect with conversational or social language, and others do not consider themselves speakers of “proper” Spanish.
Participants' responses are relevant to the preparation of future bilingual teachers. As a starting point, teachers in training would benefit from more content and pedagogy courses in Spanish to develop their knowledge of academic Spanish. Second, coursework could address crucial linguistic issues such as dialects and language variations so they can appreciate their own dialects while developing Standard and Academic Spanish for teaching. This knowledge will help them provide appropriate bilingual instruction to their future students and contribute to breaking the cycle of inadequate academic Spanish proficiency development.
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Published: Monday, February 12, 2007