Fostering a Growth Mindset in Heritage Speaking Students

Too often the students in my heritage speakers class beat themselves up about their Spanish abilities. Time and time again, they compare their skills to those of native speakers. Let’s just say that it is rare to find a student that is fully confident in their Spanish skills in my heritage class. It’s one of those “stuck in the middle,” type of scenarios in which they are not this-enough to be this, while also not being that-enough to be that.

When a student returns from a trip abroad to visit family, they bring stories back about how good it was to spend time with their family. Unfortunately, those same stories are riddled with instances of family members making fun of their accents, vocabulary choices or picking apart their imperfections in communication. Shame is a funny thing like that, it never actually does any good, yet the people who tend to misuse/overuse it the most are those closest to us. Their family members don’t intend to impede their growth with their comments but sometimes what is a mindless joke to one is a comment that sticks like a thorn into another for the rest of their life.

Unfortunately, the problems do not reside strictly in summer vacations abroad. I wish I could say that the biggest sources of my students’ doubts and insecurities as it relates to language and communication were limited to the time spent out of the country. In reality, the biggest sources of self-doubt are not from time spent out of the state or city; but rather, come from the home.

Even parents will comment or joke on the poor Spanish their children speak. These critiques and comments have in turn created language insecurity to the point where many of my heritage speakers are extremely shy about speaking Spanish in class. Students are nervous to speak for fear of looking stupid in front of their peers. They are nervous to speak in front of peers because a wrong step can be really hard to come back from. They are nervous to speak in front of peers, because first and foremost it’s even hard for them to speak Spanish in front of their loved ones. Many heritage speakers in the United States understand Spanish perfectly but respond in English because they don’t believe they are good at speaking it. In some instances, students are nervous to speak in front of their classmates due to the fact that their family has a different regional dialect and what might be right to them will be misunderstood by the rest of the class. 

When you don’t think you are good at something, you don’t enjoy doing it. It’s often been said, “it’s easy to hate what you are terrible at.” Most teenagers don’t have a growth mindset. A growth mindset sets in later in life (and for some adults, it won’t come until accessible educational opportunities have long since passed them by). Put one way, if one feels like they have a long way to go in order to reach their goals, it can be daunting. Sometimes “daunting” feels more aligned with “insurmountable,” and if a student cannot see a way for themselves to succeed, most fall into the trap of “well then, why even try.”

When heritage speakers compare their abilities to those of native speakers they see a very long staircase that seems impossible to climb. For the most part, they aren’t sure where to begin in order to improve their fluency and literacy and begin to feel hopeless as they focus on the flight of stairs in front of them. So in focusing on the gap separating where they are and where they want to be, some students emotional defense mechanism is to withhold all efforts. That whole “you cannot be hurt by that which you do not care about,” sort of sentiment. 

In order to combat this mindset, I created a lesson that walks students through what language input is and how it plays a huge factor in their abilities. I explain that based on the language input they have had in Spanish, most of them are right on track. The biggest keys are twofold: first, they must focus only on the step that is in front of them (not the whole stairwell), and secondly that everyone must start somewhere. All other things being equal, it is unfair to expect the same levels of fluency between a native speaker and a heritage speaker because the latter has not had remotely the same language input. 

Native speakers have been exposed to a wide variety of language input. They have acquired their mother tongue not just from their family and friends, but from the everyday life surrounding them. I’m not a native speaker of English because my parents spoke to me at home and called it a day. I’m a native speaker of English because my survival on a daily basis depended on me learning to speak the language of the area I grew up in. My friends spoke English, my schools taught in English, my teams spoke English, and on and on. You can read more about the differences between heritage speakers and native speakers in this blog post.

I think we are too quick to forget that heritage learners are actually squeezing out a large amount of results for the limited opportunities to grow in that heritage language they encounter. Fluency relates to societal factors as well. Native speakers have interacted with many different interlocutors in a wide range of contexts. Additionally, more often than not, they have been repeatedly exposed to written inputs to include academic materials as well as everyday exposures to text whether it be menus, directions, signs, instructions or novels.

Heritage speakers, as differentiated from native speakers, have much smaller sources of input. They have usually learned the language from one (or a few) family members and thus have limited exposure to other interlocutors and academic materials. The society in which the heritage speaker lives in, often, does not speak their home language, therefore they have gained more confidence with the language of their country because they use it more frequently and for a greater percentage of their pertinent daily communications. The heritage speakers’ range of vocabulary in the heritage language is typically then, limited to the vocabulary used in the familial context, or in the small collection of contexts in which the heritage language is spoken (perhaps a job, church, or extra-curricular).

How could anyone learn something when they have not been exposed to it? We must remember that the brain is a muscle. Language acquisition has more in common with learning a new sport than anything else. That to say, you learn by trying, by messing up, by practicing, and most importantly by doing. There is a difference between an athlete and a fan. We must encourage our students to be in the game, not just watching from the sidelines! More practically, that means encouraging them to respond in Spanish when spoken to in Spanish. 

My goal for students with this activity is to help them realize that they should not expect themselves to perform like native speakers. This concept may seem like a no-brainer as we address the issue from afar but you would be surprised at how many students need to hear this message. This lesson seeks to point out each student’s uniqueness in general, the particular language journey they find themselves on and encourage a sense of growth through self-discovery. Additionally, this activity attempts to better define the understanding of the fact that growth is good, and growth, simply growing, is the end goal in itself. Their full grasp of all elements of language acquisition (written, spoken, and reading) will flourish as they continue to gain exposure to the full language, especially in academic settings. 

mapa de input lingüístico
heritage speakers lesson

Ultimately, I need my heritage students to change their mindset about language acquisition from the typical 100 point scale, to one focused on gradual, continuous improvement. Most students have been taught to care about getting their percentage as close to 100% as possible. They have been taught that when they get a 100%, they could not do any better and that they are then perfect. Language is not on a 100 point scale. Language evolves and changes over time. Languages are regional, colloquial and adapted to fit societal norms. One can never be 100% fluent in any language, but that is not the point. The point is that one can always speak better than they did the day before. The point is that one can always learn a better way of communicating one point or another. The point is to always try, and always seek to get better (not to be perfect).

Fostering a growth mindset is key. Encourage students that they are right on track with their language skills based on the input they have been exposed to. Place the emphasis on effort, and the affirmation and positive reinforcement on the premise that “everyone has to start somewhere! Everyone has to start sometime!”

This lesson seeks to help students gain a better perspective of the comments they have received from family members and loved ones. In essence, they dig up the painful comments or jokes cracked at their expense and reframe them in the light that says they can get better, they can improve, and since language is a messy science, it’s okay to try and fail. I ask them to think critically by comparing the language input they have had and contrasting it against the language input their family members have received. Often times, my students realize that their English skills are much more advanced than their family from another country or their parents’ at home. We are each on our own language journey and to each their own.

This leads us to a conversation about celebrating bilingualism in all of its messiness. If I can get my students to stop obsessing about being perfect, and start focusing on self-improvement and the heart of communication, then I am one happy teacher! The heart of communication is simple: one person says something, and the other person understands. Two people say words at each other, and because of doing so they feel connected. 

Being bilingual is beautiful and it comes in many shapes and sizes. Students should feel proud of their ability to understand and communicate in two different languages. They should also be proud of their family members who, while on their own language journey, can do the same. Nurturing heritage languages is a worthwhile endeavor as the vast majority of heritage languages die out by the third generation. Without a proper growth mindset, heritage speakers can lose sight of the necessity of biliteracy, especially when English is their dominant language (a language that is used worldwide). It’s so important to remind students that small progress is progress and that bilingualism is an amazing achievement.

Five worksheets to teach this lesson

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