Understanding and leveraging broad-definition HL learners' motivations

An interview with graduate student Natalie Nutman (California State University, Long Beach)

Graduate student Natalie Nutman discusses her linguistic autobiography and what it meant to her to learn that she is a broad-definition HL learner of Spanish. The discussion addresses the differences between broad and narrow definition HL learners, as well as differences between second language learners and broad-definition HL learners. Also discussed is the linguistic autobiography as a tool for fostering linguistic awareness and a sense of belonging in HL learners in HL-only and mixed class.


Carreira, Maria. (Producer). (2019, July 12). Organizing principles and best practices for mixed classes [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://nhlrc.ucla.edu/nhlrc/article/205369

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Duration: 00:23:21


[Maria] Hello everybody, this is Maria Carreira from the National Heritage Language Resource Center and my guest today is Natalie Nutman. Welcome Natalie.

[Natalie] Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[Maria] Pleasure having you. Natalie is a graduate student in the Spanish Department at California State University - Long Beach where I work as a Spanish professor, and Natalie was a student in a course that I teach on heritage language research and pedagogy. One of the assignments we do in this class is to write a linguistic autobiography, which is essentially an exercise that engages students in just taking stock of all the linguistically significant events in their lives and then reflecting on how these events have shaped their use of language today, their HL in particular, their proficiency profile, their attitudes towards their HL, their motivations for studying it, et cetera. The linguistic autobiography, which I believe was originally developed by the late Professor Cecilia Pino of New Mexico State University, has been around for many, many years and continues to be one of the most empowering and enlightening activities that teachers can use with HL learners. I think this will become very obvious to you, our listeners, as Natalie tells us about her experiences with her linguistic autobiography. And, as you also see and is of interest with respect to this podcast, Natalie is a broad definition HL learner. To remind you, so-called broad definition HL learners have a family connection to the target language and cultural routes in this language, but they have no real proficiency in the language.

Linguistically speaking, these learners are like second language learners in that they come to the language classroom with no abilities to speak of in the target language. But as we will see, broad definition HL learners are not like L2 learners in pedagogically significant ways. Broad definition learners contrast with narrow definition HL learners who are, to some degree, bilingual in the target language and English. Most of us who teach heritage languages are familiar with these learners, teach these learners, and know about the pedagogical issues that arise about how to teach these learners, right? But many of us may not be familiar with what to do or, if indeed, to do anything with broad definition learners. In fact, if you're anything like me, or how I used to be about this, you might even ask yourself, "Why is this even important? Why are we talking about it?" Natalie's autobiography offers an eloquent answer to this question and underscores the importance of recognizing and building on broad definition learners' connect to the target language. It is as good a demonstration as any of the validity or legitimacy of the notion of broad definition learner and the central role it should play in language learning. And without any further delay, I'd like to now turn the floor over to Natalie to tell us what the linguistic autobiography meant for her. Natalie...

[Natalie] Thank you, and thank you for the assignment of the linguistic autobiography. It was very important to me, and the way that I see myself and my language studies changed significantly after doing the exercise. I think it was really important because instead of considering the lessons and the technical terms and different categories in a vacuum, it allowed me the opportunity to connect the material to my own life in a very personal way... that kind of text-to-self connection that we hear is so significant for learners... for heritage learners. And it was just a great opportunity for self-reflection, like "Who am I as a language learner?" I've spent the last six or so years devoted to my goal of studying Spanish and becoming a language instructor, but I had never really taken the time to consider what kind of learner I was, why, and what that meant... what kind of impact that would have on my linguistic journey. I had always thought of myself as an L2 learner - not explicitly because I didn't know what the term was when I started studying Spanish, but I had no linguistic benchmark whatsoever in Spanish when I started studying in high school. In my high school, it was required to take two years of a foreign language and aside from a few vocab words that I was familiar with, everything was pretty new to me so I was very much like an L2 learner in the sense that I became comfortable in reading and writing, but I was nervous about speaking and my listening comprehension wasn't very good. I was more comfortable with academic register than an informal register. But what I think was different for me was that learning Spanish always felt incredibly personal to me because my maternal family is Mexican. So, my great grandparents came from Michoacán, Mexico in the 20s and they moved to Sunnyside, Utah here in the U.S. and it's a tale as old as time, really. Once they came here and established themselves in the United States, they really encouraged their children to speak English and English only. And it was their opinion that this would give their children an easier life and it would be a path to success for them. And as a result, my grandmother ended up raising her children in an English, monolingual home and I was then raised in an English, monolingual home as well.

[Maria] So, you really illustrate that three-generational, actually maybe two-generational linguistic loss of the heritage language, right?

[Natalie] Yes, it happened pretty quickly. My grandmother... she'll sometimes say "Que estás haciendo," but that's kind of the only phrase that she sort of is familiar with. I haven't really seen anyone in that generation have a full conversation in Spanish in my life.

[Maria] Okay.

[Natalie] So, when I was enrolled in that class in high school, I was very excited. I was lucky enough to meet both of my great grandparents who were from Mexico and my great grandfather, in particular, had not linguistically developed very much in English so when I started studying Spanish, I was very excited to be able to communicate with him in our heritage language. And I will never forget one of the last times that I talked to him, I read him this paragraph that I had done with reflexive verbs. It was just about my daily routine, you know, me levanto a las ocho, o lo que sea, and I read it to him, and he started to cry. And he was a very serious man, he was not a very emotive man you could say - a little bit macho - and he told me it's beautiful... that it's beautiful that I study Spanish that he hoped that I continued, and this was one of the moments... milestones, I guess you could say, that convinced me that what I'm doing is important and will give me a connection with my family and that's one of the reasons why I really wanted to continue. But I think it's also important to note that, you know as I've said, English is my L1. My paternal family is English - in fact, my dad is still an English citizen - and I have an English last name and physically I look, stereotypically speaking, like pretty English. I'm the "güera" in all the groups, as they say. So, whenever I tried to tell somebody when I was young that I was Mexican, I would get some pretty strange looks and when I read about that term "heritage seeker" that is sometimes used to describe broad definition heritage language learners, it'd kind of give me pang in my stomach because I was like, "Oh, that's me" or what I have felt like in the past."

[Maria] And I think that's a very common experience of heritage language learners who are broad definition learners. They are constantly told that they are not legitimate members of part of their background because they don't speak the language. And it sounds from what you're saying - and I know - that that can be a very hurtful experience, right?

[Natalie] It can, and I also didn't feel I necessarily had the right to be hurt by it because I understand the privilege that goes along with looking white in America. So, it's a bit of awkward spot where you feel alienated, but you don't feel like you have the right to feel alienated.

[Maria] But since you have come to think about this family connection and since you have studied the topic of heritage languages, you've come to a deeper understanding, I sense, of what this connection could mean in the classroom. I just want to read a couple of sentences to you from your autobiography and ask you to comment on them.

[Natalie] Sure.

[Maria] You say, "When I took that first Introduction to Spanish class at the age of fifteen, all of the course material related to vocabulary and grammar was completely new to me. There was, however, an important difference between me and many of the other English monolinguals in my class: I had Spanish-speaking ancestors, and I wanted to learn the language in order to feel a greater connection with them." That sort of exemplifies what broad definition language learning is about, right?

[Natalie] Yes, I believe so. And I think that had a tangible impact on the motivation in my Spanish studies. Like, I would go the extra mile to write down all the new words that I heard, I changed my computer to Spanish, I changed my phone to Spanish. I tried as much as I could to immerse myself in that world and I spent a lot more time than my L2 learner peers on the coursework because it meant so much more to me and was personal to me.

[Maria] Did it also give you a sense of yeah, this is your language... you have some ownership of this language and culture... you shouldn't feel guilty about wanting to claim a connection or you shouldn't feel inauthentic about it.

[Natalie] I feel like that really came after taking the heritage language pedagogy class because it wasn't really until I heard that term and saw myself it in that I felt like I had ownership of it. Like, I had always known that it was important and meaningful and personal for me to study Spanish, but I didn't think that there was a name for that necessarily. So, when I took the course and I heard the term board definition heritage learner it was like, "Ah," like the clouds parted and I could finally see sky. And that's me - broad definition heritage learner... familial connection to the language but not necessarily a linguistic ability when you start out and that granted me such a profound sense of belonging. I don't think I could possibly overstate it, you know, because, as we know, feeling a connection to family and heritage is one of the main motivators for heritage language learners to study their HL. So, seeing myself and the type of learner that I am represented in the course and the coursework made me really feel like I formed part of something significant and positive, and it made me feel, like, not so much on the outside.

[Maria] Excellent. And, Natalie, as a graduate student you have also had the opportunity to teach Spanish, which has given you the different perspective, right? You've had the perspective of a student and now you're also having the perspective of the instructor.

[Natalie] Yes.

[Maria] What have you learned in the course or in your experience teaching HL learners now that connections to this idea of broad definition learners and what teachers can do in the classroom to increase their sense of belonging and connection.

[Natalie] Yes. Well maybe I can share a little bit about an experience that I had before I had taken the course which was, to be frank, a little bit difficult for me because I wasn't adequately prepared for it. So, the first ever teaching experience I had was last summer and I had the privilege of working as an instructor for "Upward Bound," a program, in this case, at Long Beach City College and it's a great program. It focuses on college prep for first-generation college attenders and it was my first ever course, and my title was foreign language instructor, so I prepared myself to teach a Spanish course that was kind of like that ones that I had taken. So, I based my syllabus - the very first syllabus I had ever made - on basically a Spanish 101 course and...

[Maria] I want to point out that the university - my university and Natalie's university - is one where, I think, the single largest group of students is Latino and yet we do very little to train teachers to teach heritage language learners. It's a very typical situation, unfortunately. Go on, I'm sorry.

[Natalie] Oh no, yeah. That's very true. It's exemplified in the type of syllabus that I made, which was not adaptable to a mixed class and it started from zero... well it goes against one of the biggest principles of heritage language teaching, which emphasizes more of a macro approach and teaching to the students that are in front of you instead of an arbitrary syllabus and, you know, spot treating issues that arise out of bigger conversations. So, I kind of made the error of having very few authentic materials because, quite frankly, I did not think that so many of my students would be heritage language learners. But after the first week or so, I realized I had severely misjudged the situation. Some of my students were English speaking monolinguals that would have benefited from that type of syllabus I designed, but the majority of them were heritage language learners of Spanish and there was a great variety of linguistic competence. It just made my head spin. Some of them had studied the language formally, some hadn't. Some spoke their HL exclusively at home, some didn't. Some had receptive skills, some had all four language skills. So, for the first week I kind of tried to just stick to my syllabus and it just was not working out very well. And I remember one particular time when we're doing... it's like a classic Spanish I exercise where we're practicing describing ourselves and other people - physical and personality traits - and I showed the same video to all four periods. And the period that had the most heritage language learners in it... one of my best students, most bright students, commented, "Oh, this is for babies." And I was just absolutely mortified because it was for babies and what was I doing speaking to these students who had linguistic competence and were able to express themselves already? And I was speaking to them as if they didn't even know how to say, "curly hair," you know.

[Maria] Yeah. Of course, none of this was your fault, right? You were thrown into the classroom without any previous training on these issues.

[Natalie] Yes, yes. That is true. And I had some time to go home and basically rethink the idea. So, I... of course, I wish I had been able to take this class and luckily, I will be able to return this summer and redeem myself a bit, but I was able to integrate a lot more authentic materials for the remainder of the summer. So, we read, for example, the poem "Bilingual Sestina" by Julia Alvarez who is a Dominican-American poet, novelist, et cetera, which the heritage language leaners loved but then so did the L2s and that was beautiful because then they were able to kind of compare their experience and they were able to share their distinct interpretations of the poem with each other. I also have two copies of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. So, I had one in English and one in Spanish so I was able to use both of these versions depending on which class is was and how many heritage leaners there are, and the content was just very appropriate for the HLLs and the L2 learners as well because it's a coming of age story so it's sort of universal. But Sandra was born in Chicago, but she also has this cultural hybridity that the HLLs have. So, I think that was a beautiful and rich thing to discuss in the class environment and...

[Maria] ...and the kind of readings, also, that lend themselves to exploring these connection issues that are so important for both types - broad and narrow definition - and, as you mentioned, college students who are at an age when they want to find identity. So, it's perfect for everybody actually.

[Natalie] Absolutely, and that is something that is discussed in the course and something that I want to continue to do in the future. And I am also really excited to hopefully try out project-based learning with the heritage language learners next summer. But yes, it was quite the learning experience for me. At the end of summer, the students composed these poems based on Nicolas Guillen's poem "Tengo," so they had these "I have" poems and they talked about all the things they have, and it ended up being a really great exploration of their identity. And at the end of the summer on the last day, we were able to have a day to share the poems with each other and I think it was, really, a great communion and I think we all learned from each other. And I think that having taken a course in heritage language pedagogy, I will be able to do a little bit and serve them better in the future.

[Maria] It sounds like you came up with great solutions, well done. So, at this point I think our time is almost up and I want close this interview by reading the last sentence or two from your linguistic autobiography but before doing that, two things - first of all, we are posting Natalie's linguistic autobiography in connection with this podcast so you can actually look at it. It's beautiful, I highly recommend that you view it. And then I just want to conclude with a couple of thoughts, ideas that have come up in the course of this podcast. Natalie, interrupt me... feel free to add whatever you wish. What we see through this discussion and your linguistic autography is that there are two dimensions to being an HL learner - a linguistic dimension, which relates to what you do with language... whether you're bilingual or not, and an effective relationship, which relates to your family's connection and is not necessarily connected to being able to speak the HL. Broad definition learners such as Natalie are HL learners. We should not deny them status as HL learners. They're HL learners with respect to the effective dimension. With respect to their linguistic knowledge, however, they are L2 learner which mean we want to use the methods that work with L2 learners but never denying them that connection because in the language classroom, this family connection can be a very powerful motivator when used to build connections to the target language and also because, as Natalie has illustrated, it can be a very powerful demotivator if it is used to exclude people... to make them feel like they are not really connected, they're not authentic members of their ethnic group or some family connection, right? So, we don't want to do that. We always want to build on those connections. They're powerful motivators and also, they're beautiful. And, as we have seen, the linguistic autobiography is an excellent activity for building these connections. They can work with narrow and broad definition learners. They have been used in HL-only classes as an activity for a long, long time. But what I'd like to say is that they're also appropriate for mixed classes - classes with HL and L2 learners, the type of class that Natalie taught a summer ago. It can give HL learners a sense of ownership that we talked about and for L2 learners, it's also a very valuable experience because it can help them deepen their understanding of language learning and the connection between identity and language, different categories of learners. So, it can be a very enriching experience beyond the information that is conveyed in the typical language textbook. And I want to read the last two sentences from Natalie's autobiography, as I said. She says, "There are countless reasons to learn a second language, and all of them have value. But for me, the allure of feeling a personal and cultural connection to a language and to learn how to experience the world through the lens of my Spanish-speaking ancestors is the most valuable of all." As I started out saying at the beginning of this podcast, this is as eloquent an argument for the need to take account of broad definition motivations as we will ever encounter. Thank you, Natalie.

[Natalie] Thank you. You summed up the need wonderfully. I appreciate your time, thank you.

[Maria] Thank you, bye bye.