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En Español: The anguish of language for heritage speakers


Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

Hace unos años entrevisté a una estudiante mexicoamericana de la Universidad de Iowa sobre su lengua materna. Yo estaba realizando la investigación para mi tesis doctoral sobre hablantes de herencia del español, y algo que Celeste dijo me sorprendió mucho: que la lengua que hablan en su casa era “Tex-Mex.” a la que describió como “no es español correcto.” Lamentablemente muchos estadounidenses bilingües consideran el idioma que hablan en sus casas, que tiene una gran influencia del inglés, incorrecto porque no es igual al idioma que ven en libros o en los medios.

Si creciste en un hogar hablando un idioma distinto al inglés, eres un hablante de herencia de esa lengua, eres un bilingüe nativo. Como creciste con dos (o más) idiomas simultáneamente, es perfectamente normal que combines dichos idiomas al hablar. Es muy probable que haya ciertas áreas de tu vida que navegues en español, y otras áreas que sólo conozcas en inglés, y que por esto el Spanglish sea el idioma con el que te sientas más a gusto.

Las lenguas les pertenecen a quienes las hablan, no a los lingüistas y libros de texto. Si bien es cierto que la lingüística y la gramática son útiles y nos ayudan a estudiar, no te deberían hacer sentir mal por cómo te expresas en tu lengua materna. Nadie aprende el idioma “correcto” a casa.

Una vez que entendemos ésto, es bueno saber que estudiar nuestra lengua de herencia en la universidad nos puede ser de gran beneficio. Para empezar, tendremos más confianza al hablar y escribir en cualquier contexto, incluyendo clases académicas. La clase nos ayudará a no sufrir la erosión lingüística, a comprender cómo funciona la lengua y a aprender sobre otras culturas relacionadas con ella. Además, ser bilingüe tiene otros beneficios: estudios recientes demuestran que niños y adolescentes bilingües llegan a la adultez con más materia gris, la parte del cerebro que nos ayuda a procesar y comunicar información. Esto se traduce en mejor memoria y menos deterioro cuando envejecemos. Asimismo, y contrario a la creencia popular, no vas a olvidar un idioma si estudias otro. De hecho, hablar múltiples idiomas ayuda con la concentración y la atención, lo cual conlleva a una mejoría en la cognición y otras habilidades del pensamiento. También se ha demostrado que el bilingüismo ayuda a desarrollar la creatividad y el pensamiento crítico. Finalmente, los bilingües poseen mejores habilidades socioemocionales y de comportamiento, las cuales derivan en una mayor capacidad de empatía.

La lengua no es simplemente la manera en la que nos comunicamos. Las lenguas que hablamos influyen enormemente en nuestra identidad, determinan quienes somos, cómo nos presentamos ante el mundo, cómo y qué comunicamos, e incluso cómo pensamos.
Si eres hablante de herencia del español, tienes que saber que los estudiantes Latine de la universidad de Iowa tienen la oportunidad de mantener y/o recuperar su bilingüismo y multiculturalismo. Celeste se graduó de la universidad habiendo encontrado nuevas razones para estar orgullosa de su lengua materna y su herencia mexicana, pero más importante aún, sin considerar al Tex-Mex como español incorrecto, sino como parte de su identidad.

Claudia Pozzobon Potratz es profesora de español como lengua de herencia en la Universidad de Iowa. Tiene más de veinte años de experiencia en la enseñanza de lenguas y de escritura en segundas lenguas.

The Anguish of Language for Heritage Speakers

Written and translated by Claudia Pozzobon Potratz

A few years ago, I interviewed a Mexican-American University of Iowa student from Texas. Celeste and I were talking about her mother tongue. I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation on heritage speakers of Spanish, and I was struck when she said the language in her home, “Tex-Mex,” “no es español correcto” (“it is not correct Spanish”). Unfortunately, many bilingual Americans consider their home language “incorrect” because it doesn’t look like the language they see in textbooks or other printed media, or because it is heavily influenced by English.

If you grew up speaking a language other than English at home, you are considered a heritage speaker of that language. You are a native bilingual. Since you grew up with two (or more) languages simultaneously, you often combine the languages you speak, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s very likely you navigate certain parts of your life in Spanish and others in English, and that’s why speaking Spanglish might feel more comfortable to you.

Languages belong to their speakers, not to linguists and textbooks. Yes, linguistics and grammar textbooks are useful and help us study, but they shouldn’t make you feel bad about how you speak. No one learns “proper” language at home.

That said, studying your heritage language in college has great benefits. First, you will feel more confident when speaking and/or writing in any setting, including academic classes. You will avoid language attrition, understand how the language works and learn about the other cultures that are linked to it. Plus, being bilingual has other major benefits. Recent studies show that bilingual children and teenagers reach adulthood with more gray matter, the part of the brain that helps us process and communicate information. This translates into better memory and less decay as we age. Also, and contrary to popular belief, you won’t forget one language if you study a second. Speaking multiple languages actually aids in focus and attention, which leads to enhanced cognition and mental function. Bilingualism has also proven to help develop creative and critical thinking skills. Lastly, bilinguals demonstrate better social-emotional and behavioral skills, which lead to a greater capacity for empathy.

Language is not simply a way to communicate. Our identities are heavily influenced by the languages we speak. They shape who we are and how we present ourselves to the world, determining how and what we communicate, and even how we think.

If you are a heritage speaker of Spanish, I want you to know that Latine students at the University of Iowa have the opportunity to maintain and/or reclaim their bilingualism and multiculturalism. Celeste graduated from UI with a newfound pride in her home language and her Mexican heritage. More importantly, she didn’t consider Tex-Mex to be wrong anymore, but an important part of her identity.

Claudia Pozzobon Potratz is a visiting assistant professor of Spanish as a heritage language at the University of Iowa. She has been teaching languages and second language writing for over 20 years.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s August 2022 issues.


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