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Spanish: Foreign or Second Language?

Written By: Adam Mendelson on November 15, 2008 6 Comments

On the first day of Spanish 1 here at UC Berkeley, my students were asked to fill out a survey about their previous experiences with the language and their reasons for taking the class. On an open ended question about reasons for wanting to learn Spanish, of the twenty of my students that completed this survey, eight of them mentioned professional goals, with four of those eight explicitly mentioning the importance of Spanish here in California. Four out of twenty is far from a majority, but it does represent a voice that you might assume would have at least caught my attention. Ironically, it has, but not until months after that particular semester.

Despite the quotidian presence of Spanish in the state of California, the voice of Spanish speaking Californians is strikingly absent from the Spanish 1 curriculum at UC Berkeley. The course materials make limited references to the use of Spanish in the United States, let alone California. Furthermore, the majority of these references appear in the margins or at the foot of textbook pages as cultural extras, not as the context for either communicative or grammatical activities. Given the break-neck pace at which instructors are expected to cover the linguistic content of the course, these extras seldom make their way into lessons. In addition to the textbook, a packet of cultural readings is also used. Not one of these readings mentions the use of Spanish in the United States.

As an instructor that semester, I’m not even sure I noticed this absence. However, after taking a spectacular class with Sarah Freedman in the School of Education about Bakhtinian perspectives on learning, I now find it very problematic that despite the fact that Spanish is widely spoken in California, it is taught as if it were not; as if it were another traditional foreign language like French or German. Subsequently, I find myself thinking about this issue fairly regularly, and I’d like to share a couple of my thoughts. In particular, I think there are two levels of institutional voices at play here: 1) those that sound loudly in the public sphere and reflect pervasive ideologies about language diversity and globalization; and 2) those that stratify the academic communities concerned with language pedagogy.

Ideologies about language and globalization

In recent years, enrollment in language classes in US universities has exploded. Generally this drastic increase is attributed to globalization. The creation of global markets requires that a much greater number of Americans be prepared to interact with a diverse and polyglot range of interlocutors. At the same time, the post-9-11 era requires multilingual individuals who can participate in both security-related and diplomatic activities. Finally, mass migration means that interactions with linguistically diverse individuals become commonplace both at home and abroad.

This last point, however, is treated somewhat ambiguously. Public discourse in the US now posits that Americans should learn additional languages in order to interact with others abroad, but the predominant message on our own soil continues to be that immigrants must learn English if they are going to live here. Ironically, the English-only ideology can’t help but reveal the fact that other languages are spoken in the US; if not for these immigrant voices, there would be no need to continuously promote the status of English. Public discourse on language and globalization is thus inherently conflictive.

The treatment of Spanish as a foreign rather than a second language is consistent with this contradictory public discourse. University students should be encouraged to learn Spanish, but their use of the language should take place on foreign soil, either as tourists feeding the global economy, diplomats defending the interests of their country, or businessmen and women exploiting global markets and resources. In contrast, preparing students to speak Spanish here at home would give legitimacy to the use of Spanish in California, thus undermining the status of English.

Academic stratification

While academic stratification might be most obvious in the way funding tends to be greater in hard sciences than social sciences or liberal arts, the area of language and literature is also heavily stratified. At the top of this hierarchy sits English literary studies, then English composition (in part because it feeds students into English lit departments), then foreign language literature, followed by foreign language learning, and finally English as a second language, an enterprise treated more remedially than academically.

The lower-class citizenry of foreign language lecturers, both in terms of economic reward and opportunities for gaining symbolic capital through research and publication, is frustrating but generally accepted by this professional community. This community understands that one of its primary functions on university campuses is to produce students who are capable of studying foreign language literature. Given the position of foreign language instruction in this hierarchy, it is no surprise that Spanish continues to be treated as a foreign rather than second language. From the perspective of those at the top of the pyramid, students who are primarily concerned with speaking Spanish in the professional sector do nothing to reproduce the privileged position of literary studies. From the perspective of the second-to-last rung of the pyramid, associating Spanish instruction with the remedial connotations of ESL would be a step down instead of up.

Reconceptualization of Spanish through dialogic pedagogy

Given the authoritative discourse on language and globalization and the centripetal forces that reproduce a stratified language/literature teaching enterprise, a top-down reconceptualization of Spanish as a second language is unlikely. However, a bottom-up approach based on some of the principles of Bakhtin’s dialogic pedagogy is at least interesting to consider. In such an approach, multiple varieties of Spanish would sound in the classroom, including, of course, those spoken locally. These local voices would represent an alternative to the fictitiously homogeneous Spanish reflected in most textbooks. Not only would bringing in these local voices expose learners to a greater range of options for expression and creativity, but such voices would also be more immediately applicable for the students beyond the classroom.

Furthermore, because the foreign language classroom operates under the cover of the centripetal forces that reproduce the privileged position of literary studies, it is a sanctioned and legitimate arena for the exposition of authoritative discourses. By bringing in voices normally left on the periphery, such as the Spanish spoken in California, these voices appropriate some of the authority and legitimacy of the classroom. The inclusion of these voices in the classroom is potentially a “trickle-up” approach to social change. That is, not only would students gain exposure to the varieties of Spanish that they hope to master, but also these local varieties would slowly lose their marginalized status through the legitimacy of university instruction.

Of course, there is a massive flaw in my proposal: it requires that individual instructors value these local Spanish voices. In reality, many of these instructors are graduate students in literature, funding their way through a degree that they hope will land them in the academic strata of foreign language literature, but unable to ignore the possibility that they may end up one step down in the hierarchy. The centripetal forces that reproduce the status of literary studies no doubt influence these individuals heavily. They aspire to be participating agents in this reproduction and are thus unlikely to willingly undermine it.

In this case, perhaps the reconceptualization of Spanish as a second language must start with students such as mine who expressed that their goals for Spanish were neither touristic nor global-economical, but immediately practical – they want to be able to communicate with individuals with whom they share a home state but not a means of communication. While it took me months to listen, these students did bring an internally persuasive discourse into my classroom. At the time I failed to legitimize it, but the fact that this voice has since resonated loudly will undoubtedly cause me to do things differently the next time I have an opportunity to teach. Of course, recent budget cuts have caused a substantial reduction in the number of Spanish instructor positions available, especially for those of us from other departments, so who knows when this opportunity will come…

References for the interested reader:

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). Discourse in the novel (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). In M. Holquist (Ed.), The dialogic imagination (pp. 259-366). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (2004). Dialogic origin and dialogic pedagogy of grammar: Stylistics in teaching Russian language in secondary school. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42( 6), 3-11.

Ball, A., & Freedman, S. W. (Eds.). (2004). Bakhtinian perspectives on language, literacy, and learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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6 Responses to “Spanish: Foreign or Second Language?”

  1. Clint on: 16 November 2008 at 6:10 pm

    When students are motivated by a real desire to communicate with others without regard to making money from the foreign language, more efficient learning actually takes place.

  2. Billette on: 20 November 2008 at 7:40 pm

    Thanks, Adam, for an analytical discussion that is not void of passion. I’ve always wondered about several of the issues that you bring up, namely the status of lecturers who do the work that I admire most in the foreign language depts. and the instruction of “academic” Spanish. I am not comfortable with the idea that I believe is still true at Cal that, in order to study ‘Western Hemisphere’ Spanish, I must first begin with a semester of Spanish in the Dept. of Span. and Portuguese and then move into Chicano Studies. Does that not seem inherently separatist? Hierarchical? I question the values put on the varieties of Spanish assumed to be taught in these discrete departments.

  3. Adam on: 20 November 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Thanks for the comment. The hierarchy of Spanishes is indeed troubling, although at least based on my interactions with other UCB GSI’s, its something that many of them passionately address in their classrooms. Your mention of Chicano Studies also makes me think. The fact that such a field exists indicates that at least some folks in academia are very much concerned with local Spanishes, although, like you, I question the degree of congruence between such studies and Spanish language instruction. At the same time, based on the overal logic of my argument, the existence of Chicano literature places this field much higher on the hierarchy than the Spanish spoken by Mexican immigrants, for example. In any event, Chicano studies clearly adds an additional complexity to my argument, and is something I hadn’t previously considered. Thanks!

  4. daveski on: 7 December 2008 at 8:37 pm

    For some reason when I was reading this post I kept thinking back to Mike Huffmaster’s BLC fellows presentation a year ago (his report is downloadable here: http://blc.berkeley.edu/newsletterF2007.pdf), when he was talking about giving explicit attention to stylistics in the language classroom by bridging grammatical study with the analysis of poetry. If such pedagogies brought to the fore local voices, in local Spanishes, I wonder what this might do to challenge the stratifications on a few of the levels of the hierarchy (the “lit vs. lang” divide being another)

  5. Mathew Kemp on: 5 June 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Translation tools often show the Spanish language español as second to English, the Spanish language should be regarded as more of a primary language and have a greater influence in the media, especially in California and the United States. I feel the Spanish language should be the first language of choice for those willing to learn a second language.
    Thanks for the write up Adam.

  6. Esther Powell on: 21 November 2011 at 3:49 am

    It all depends on the motivation of the student. People who are really interested in learning a foreign language will turn it into a second language.

    Interesting article though for people in search of motivation.

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