Heritage Speakers and Being Bilingual

IMG_4413As I write this post I have just returned from spending 7 weeks in Brazil, mainly in Salvador, Bahia.  I was serving as the faculty director of our UT summer study abroad program.  This year we had 17 undergraduate students from UT who participated in our program, which includes home stay, morning language classes, afternoon excursions, and service learning opportunities.  It was a super experience (and more so because we were in Brazil during the World Cup).

As related to language learning however, I wanted to share some observations about what it is like for Spanish-English bilingual heritage speakers to be able to study Portuguese in a study abroad program, in Brazil.  Among the 17 students that were in Salvador, almost all of them were heritage bilingual speakers of Spanish and English, most of them with ties to Texas and Mexico.

Heritage bilingual speakers find themselves in a very interesting position in that they often switch languages based on the situation.  That is to say, they may use English at school, at church, and at work, but they switch to Spanish when they are at home, or when they visit relatives, hang out with friends, or when watching TV or listening to music.  The interesting factor is that they compartmentalize their language use, based on the situation.  They would almost never, for example, use Spanish at school, but then they would almost never use English when visiting relatives.  Another factor is that their use of Spanish and English lacks any of the meta-awareness of language.  That is to say, they use their language skills, but are less adept at being able to talk about their language use (i.e., they cannot conjugate verbs, describe grammatical features like gender and agreement, etc).

All this is to say that while in Salvador, I starting noticing (and comparing) the way these students were learning and using Portuguese.

1.  Switch to Portuguese.  Similar to the ways that heritage bilingual speakers switch languages based on situation, the 17 students in our program did the same in Salvador.  I would observe them as they spoke English or Spanish to classmates, but then suddenly switch to Portuguese to order food from a vendor, or when speaking to their host family members, or when talking to administrative staff at the school.  The non-heritiage speakers do not switch in the same way.  The non-heritage speakers put themselves in English mode or in Portuguese mode, but they are less adept and switching back and forth. The ease in which the heritage speakers moved from one language to another was impressive, and it seemed to happen unconsciously. It was as if their brain simply followed some cue to move back and forth.

2.  “When in Brazil, try to speak only in Portuguese”  As a general strategy, we often tell students that while they are in Brazil, they should speak only in Portuguese.  We use this as a language learning strategy.  We are telling students that they need to get their brains into Portuguese-speaking mode, and this will enhance their language acquisition.  The problem is that I now question this strategy a bit when dealing with the heritage speakers.  This is not because I don’t believe that we learn more language by practicing it.  However, in the case of the heritage speakers, their whole experience in language choice is based on switching from one to another.  They never artificially stay in only one language.  As a result, I noticed that these students were less likely to stay in Portuguese language mode in Brazil.  But I also do not believe that they were disadvantaged by this.  They seemed to be able to progress in Portuguese just fine, without having to resort to only speaking in Portuguese.  It is as if their brain was saying, “Why would I speak in Portuguese to Daniela, that would be weird?”

3.  Language is real.  My observation here is that heritage speakers already know that communication in both languages is real.  In the case of my students, they already use both Spanish and English is real life situations.  They have real emotions, real feelings, and real experiences.  Mono-lingual speakers study a foreign language without the benefit of knowing that the other language is really used in actual life.  For the mono-lingual learners, there is a bigger transition phase, or discovery phase.  They simply have to resort back to their native language at times.  I believe that it is easier for learners of a third language when they already have experiential knowledge of communicating in other languages.  Knowing that it is possible, makes it just that much easier.  This was also the experience of our 17 learners in Salvador.

So, to my 17 UT students who were with me in Salvador, thank you, thank you for the wonderful experience of being able to hang out with you in Brazil.  I loved your energy, I loved your excitement to be in Brazil, I loved to observe how you maximized your experience abroad.  And for those of you who are heritage speakers of Spanish and English, thank you for showing me once again some of the nuances in language learning.

PS  The photo was taken at the Escola Aberta, where some of my students were working on a service project to add tiles to some of the classrooms at a local community school.



2 Responses to “Heritage Speakers and Being Bilingual”

  1. adamf2011 Says:

    Interesting post. Portuguese and Spanish are pretty closely related, aren’t they? Do you think things might’ve been different if the bilinguals had instead gone to, say, Mongolia to study Mongolian?

  2. Orlando Says:

    Hi Adam,
    Of course the fact that Spanish and Portuguese are related has to help out, but my guess is that the issue here is more that the Heritage Bilingual speakers are already accustomed to switching languages. They know that language is really used in day to day activities. In some ways, that is the more interesting observation. If so, even if they were to study Mongolian, I assume that they would have an advantage there as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: