Students and faculty gathered in a small classroom in Canisius Hall on Thursday, Nov. 9, and eagerly listened and engaged in conversation with Gabriela DeRobles, Ph.D. Professor in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Colorado Denver. DeRobles’ event featured a discussion about a podcast she co-hosts with two others.
Her podcast, “Heritage by Design,” shares the voices of heritage speakers. In a press release, Fairfield News acknowledged that the “podcast at the heart of this discussion serves as a medium to amplify the voices of heritage speakers: individuals whose native language is not the dominant language in their community.”
However, a correction should be made to the use of “native language”. Debates surrounding the term “native language” are commonplace. Merriam-Webster defines native as “one born or reared in a particular place, belonging to a particular place by birth.”
But is anyone born speaking a language, or do they learn it? The podcast focuses on heritage speakers, who DeRobles affirms as “anybody who comes from a home where they have some kind of cultural connection, a kind of historical family connection to a language. Regardless of whether or not you actually speak the language or understand it or not.”
DeRoble’s distinction indicates that not all heritage speakers share the same first language and heritage language. She explains that bilingualism is fluid, thus, one’s productive and receptive Spanish abilities can change throughout one’s life, yet their status as a heritage speaker never changes.
For example, a heritage speaker can learn and reclaim their heritage language in their adult life; therefore, in this scenario, their first language was not their heritage language.
Sponsored by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures; The Latinx, Latin American, Caribbean Studies Program and the Humanities Institute, the event engaged listeners as she explored identity, language and community-building through a digital medium. DeRobles proclaims that through a podcasting medium, she attempts to connect with a “whiter” audience.
Both of DeRobles’ parents are from Mexico and she grew up in a bilingual community in California. She teaches a class titled, “Writing for Latinos,” a “writing class for students who grew up speaking Spanish, especially those who grew up in the United States.”
Colorado University—a university whose student body is 24% Latinx/Hispanic—offers just two Spanish courses for heritage speakers, known Heritage Language Education (HLE) courses. Moreover, the university received federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution for one year in 2021 as its student body was over 25% Latinx or Hispanic; however, that title was taken away last year as the population dropped a percentage.
At the event, DeRobles spoke about HLE and the lack of institutional support and resources it receives.
Sophomore Isabella Palacio, a Spanish major whose parents are of Hispanic descent and who speaks only Spanish in her home in Miami, “a city where Hispanics thrive,” sees “Spanish not just as a spoken language but also as a tool to enhance my reading and writing abilities.”
“I am committed to making constant development in these areas, even though I recognize that my Spanish language proficiency, especially in reading and writing, is still a work in progress. It involves more than just speaking; it involves becoming fluent in every aspect of the language,” she contributes.
Her statements portray the necessity for Spanish courses that teach Spanish language skills, such as writing, that are not usually learned at home.
Palacio also describes that a factor in her decision to be a Spanish major was her father’s desire for her to keep speaking the language and to maintain her Spanish skills. She recounts that her father told her it is important to keep her heritage language “close”.
Palacio also notes that “people who grow up in multilingual environments occasionally lose their second language proficiency. I am determined to prevent that from happening to me.” Through a Spanish major, she is determined to maintain her Spanish proficiency while away from home.
DeRobles explains that HLE maintains the heritage language, promotes the acquisition of academic skills in the heritage language, cultivates positive attitudes toward the heritage language and develops cultural awareness.
Because Fairfield University’s Magis Core Curriculum requires students to take courses with a focus on social justice and racial and cultural awareness, a conversation around the need for more HLE courses has been sparked.
Furthermore, a lack of knowledge about HLE courses is present among heritage speakers.
“I didn’t know about the heritage speakers class. I would’ve taken the class if I did. But since Fairfield University placed me in my Spanish class my first year, I had to take a different one,” states Jennifer Fajardo ‘25.
“My professor told me about the heritage speakers class halfway through the year, but there was no reason to take it next semester because it would be a repeat course,” she continued.
The lack of HLE classes can speak to the fact that heritage speakers’ languages are often stigmatized, which can contribute to linguistic insecurity as police and schools criticize the use of heritage languages. Through her podcast, DeRobles hopes to destigmatize diverse linguistic backgrounds and foster understanding and appreciation for them instead.
A future episode of the podcast will focus on the “no sabo” trend, which stigmatizes Spanish speakers whose language is influenced by English, as both languages are constantly in contact within the U.S.
The “no sabo” phenomenon shames young Latinx and Hispanic people who often did not learn the language because their parents did not want them to go through the same shame and discrimination they faced.
Moreover, research published by the Pew Research Center at the end of Sept. 2023 corroborates the fact that heritage speakers are shamed and stigmatized as a result of their inability to speak “pure standard” Spanish.
While heritage speakers are not only shamed by the general population, but also by fellow heritage speakers, the necessity for HLE is evermore present.
Sergio Adrada-Rafael, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish at Fairfield describes the need for HLE education. “First of all, there is a bigger and bigger number of Latino heritage language students all over the U.S. More so in state schools, but the number is increasing at Fairfield, faster than the number of any other minority students.”
He continues to detail Fairfield’s obligation to ensure each student feels belonging on campus—belonging that can be promoted through HLE courses. “It is important for heritage language speaking students to feel like they are both a part of the community but also that they have a voice on a very white campus.
“With more and more heritage speakers in the Modern Language Program, it is more necessary to have HLE courses for them,” he asserts.
Junior Natalia Llano affirms his statement. “I wish I took an HLE class. I feel like it would’ve worked better for me as the class would’ve related to my life.”
Even though DeRobles, Fairfield professors and students affirm the necessity of Modern Language courses and HLE courses, modern language departments across the U.S. are in danger.
Entering this academic year, West Virginia University (WVU) planned to eliminate the entirety of its Modern Language Department because of a budget shortfall. In the end, WVU cut the Modern Language Department staff from 24 to five and will only offer elective courses in Spanish and Chinese – no majors or minors.
However, the elimination of modern language programs is not new. The American Association of University Professors covered the reductions and eliminations of modern language departments in 2011, writing, “Recent draconian cuts to language teaching in colleges and universities are exacerbating an already serious problem.”
Both DeRobles’ event and podcast stress the fact that knowledge about and the ability to understand diverse languages is essential.
Dr. Adrada-Rafael seconds her statement and describes why universities all over the U.S. should protect their Modern Language Departments. Likewise, he also explains why students at Fairfield University should care about learning another language.
“Students should care [about learning another language] because the Latino population surrounding Fairfield is big, we only have to look at Bridgeport and NYC to know that. Students need to be able to communicate with all people,” he states.
Across the U.S., Hispanic people make up 18.9% of the population. In New York City, N.Y., a location where many Fairfield students choose to work after graduation because of its proximity and robust business world, Latinx people make up 25% of the population.
Near Fairfield University, Bridgeport’s Hispanic population accounts for 41.7% of the city. Furthermore, by 2025, one out of four children in classrooms will be English as an Additional Language Learners.
Dr. Adrada-Rafael also references the professional advantages of knowing another language. “There are more and more articles, specifically written by Forbes, which prove that being bilingual can help you find a job and give you an advantage in the professional world.”
Palacio’s beliefs align with the statements of Dr. Adrada Rafael as she notes that “my fluency in Spanish will undoubtedly help me in my future professional endeavors. I know that being fluent in Spanish gives me a distinct edge in the communication industry.”
Dr. Adrada-Rafael concludes that “it’s not just about finding a better job with higher pay though, it’s about being able to understand the language and connect with the culture of the largest minority group in the U.S.”
Even though minority languages are currently under attack—in education, in daily life, in the government—the podcast’s message remains simple yet profound: “I am not the only.” DeRobles’ podcast creates a community that promotes security and avoids isolation in the face of a “narrowly normative culture” that often promotes the alienation of diverse identities and languages.
With these attacks on language and the lack of HLE courses in mind, DeRobles hopes that her podcast promotes heritage language education and educates others on “who we are: the identity of a heritage speaker.”