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Diversity, belonging and the second language acquisition of Spanish

Posted on: May 17, 2021

How do teachers develop diversity and belonging in the second language classroom? Kimberley L. Geeslin, Avizia Y. Long, and Megan Solon, authors of The Acquisition of Spanish as a Second Language, explore how the factors can be a tool for redefining successful communication.

Recent events have sent a clear signal that educators have a responsibility to contribute to campus-wide efforts to increase diversity, prioritize equity, and ensure a sense of belonging. Knowing languages other than English, supporting others in the learning of those languages, and studying and understanding how languages are learned can be key avenues to ensuring that all students, regardless of language background and experience, feel a sense of belonging and are able to participate fully in the classroom. Spanish, one of the world’s most spoken languages, offers an excellent vehicle for understanding individual experiences and the nature of learning and interaction.

Here is how:

1. SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNERS OF SPANISH POSSESS A DEVELOPING SYSTEM OF LANGUAGE THAT REFLECTS EXTERNAL INFLUENCES SUCH AS THE LANGUAGE TO WHICH A LEARNER IS EXPOSED AND THE CONTEXTUAL FACTS OF THOSE INTERACTIONS. Knowing about language learning and second language learners helps us understand issues related to identity and how we use language as we interact with one another. Through the study of second language acquisition we learn about the components of “accent”, which features make us sound like we are a part (or not) of a particular group, and which aspects of expression might hint at our belonging to a variety of communities defined by geographic location, gender, age, or socioeconomic status. This means that as we hear language we glean hints about the experiences of the speaker. Our own language system reflects personal experiences and influences how we interpret linguistic cues as well. In general, we come to identify and interpret not only the semantic message but also the additional social and individual information we convey, and to understand our own biases and expectations about those features of speech.

2. THE SPANISH LANGUAGE CLASSROOM IS A CONTEXT IN WHICH SPEAKERS OF SPANISH WITH A RANGE OF BACKGROUNDS AND EXPERIENCES LEARN TO INTERACT WITH ONE ANOTHER AND WITH SPANISH SPEAKERS BEYOND THE CLASSROOM. In the Spanish classroom we regularly navigate communication and instruction in the context of learners with a variety of experiences with language. Understanding the abilities and language systems of heritage speakers who grew up with Spanish language in their homes and/or local communities, for example, lends itself to creating a sense of belonging for students who use Spanish in different domains or for different purposes. Likewise, an understanding of the varieties of Spanish and how these are learned, both through classroom, extra-curricular, and residential experiences fosters respect for speakers across regions of the world and ensures that students are able to communicate respectfully and effectively with speakers from different backgrounds.

3. IN ORDER TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY IN SPANISH, SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNERS MUST BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND DIVERSE SPEAKERS, TO MODIFY LANGUAGE ACCORDING TO THE SPEAKER, HEARER, AND CONTEXT OF INTERACTION, AND TO INTERPRET AND EXPRESS SOCIAL INFORMATION ALONG WITH GRAMMATICAL INFORMATION. Sociolinguistic competence is a term used to remind us that learning a second language includes learning facts about that system that extend beyond the creation of well-formed utterances to include knowledge of how to organize an argument, how to show interpersonal connection, and how to modify speech from one interaction to another. To develop this ability, learners must be exposed to a variety of speakers who differ in geographic background, as well as by individual factors such as age or gender. Understanding how Spanish is acquired allows us to design our Spanish language classrooms to maximize this development by including varied sources of language, multiple speakers, a range of voices and diverse opportunities for interaction. By diversifying the voices in our Spanish language classrooms, we contribute to student development, providing a more accurate reflection of the diversity in the real world, and we foster a sense of belonging for the students in the classroom.

These examples illustrate that by understanding the processes by which Spanish (or other languages) is learned and by being cognizant of the variability as well as systematicity and consistency in linguistic systems across speakers and communities, we gain key knowledge for understanding, embracing, and encouraging diversity and inclusion more broadly. Our understanding of how second languages are acquired provides an additional lens through which we can understand the ways that one’s background and experiences shape one’s behaviors (linguistic and otherwise), how we use various resources at our disposal to express and create different aspects of our identities, and how numerous factors contribute to development and change over time. It can also be a tool for (re)defining successful communication thereby broadening our understanding of inclusive and effective interaction for our students, our campus communities, and beyond.