Teaching Spanish in Mexico and the US. Pedagogical and Socio-Political Dimensions

María Luisa Parra Velasco
Teaching Spanish is a complex subject that goes beyond pedagogy; different historical times, diverse geographical and political contexts, as well as economic and cultural interests must be considered. Its implications transcend teaching and learning issues, grammatical structures, communication, or literacy skills. It is intertwined with important ethnolinguistic identity and community belonging issues, as well as with access, equity, and social justice.

So, what do we mean when we talk about teaching Spanish? What do we teach? Who are the teachers? Who are the learners? What are the methods and pedagogies? Are they all equally effective for all learners? What are the objectives of such teaching? This article reflects on the importance of this issue mainly within US-Mexico relations, since it is projected that by 2060 the United States will be the country with the second largest number of Spanish speakers in the world, after Mexico: 27.5% of its population is of Hispanic origin (Instituto Cervantes, 2022) and within it, the majority is of Mexican descent.

Spanish Language in the World 
The infographic in pages 14-15 of this issue of UNAM Internacional shows data about Spanish as one of the most present global languages. According to the Cervantes Institute yearbook, there are nearly 42 million Spanish speakers in the United States, where Latino children and youth have limited access to bilingual and Spanish as a heritage language (SHL) programs in Spanish departments at the high school level.

But what does it mean to have or to study Spanish as a native, second, or heritage language? What is bilingual education about? From a critical sociolinguistic perspective, it has been pointed out that these categories are social constructions referred directly to the linguistic system, but to allow classification of types of speakers inside and outside nation-States (for example, inside and outside Mexico and the United States) to maintain, through their teaching in schools, power and hegemony over them. This critical perspective is important to give a proper dimension to the teaching, curriculum design, and forms of evaluation. This means that teaching Spanish includes not only methodological and curricular dimensions, but also socio-political, economic, and identity dimensions for different groups. The following is my analysis of the four Spanish teaching contexts mentioned. 

Four Contexts for Teaching Spanish 

Spanish as a Mother Language
Spanish has been taught in Mexico through official programs and curricula by the Public Education Secretary, assuming that it is the only language for social mobility and that all children attending school have it as their mother language or, at least, are able to understand it. Munguía Zatarain (2015) finds that there have been three debates arising from two educational reforms (in the 1970s and in the 1990s) that have structured the programs: a) the convenience or inconvenience of teaching Spanish through grammar; b) the implicit or explicit teaching of grammar; c) the value and meaning of normativity. These are themes and questions that appear repeatedly in all Spanish teaching contexts.

There are important socio-political implications from assuming that Spanish is the mother language that should be taught in schools in a plurilingual country as is Mexico. The idea is based on a foundational ideology of the Mexican nation-State identity that does not take into account millions of bilingual Mexican children, some indigenous speakers of native languages and Spanish, and other Mexican-Americans, transnational migrants, speakers of English and Spanish. The situation for all these students is critical in the face of a monolingual and mono-cultural curriculum, which does not allow them to benefit from their own linguistic and cultural knowledge. It creates a problem of access, equity, and justice for linguistically diverse students. 

Spanish as a Second or Foreign Language (SFL) 
Spanish is the second most widely spoken and studied language in the United States at all levels of education. According to the American Councils for International Education (2017), in 2014-2015 there were 7.4 million elementary and high school students enrolled in Spanish courses in the United States, well ahead of the number of French (1.3 million), German (330,898) and Chinese (227,086) students.

Spanish departments in U.S. schools and universities have been characterized by following the peninsular tradition, centralized by the Cervantes Institute (Del Valle, 2011): literature studies are privileged and the study of the prestigious peninsular and Latin American variants are promoted. From a pedagogical point of view, Lacorte (2015) explains that Spanish programs have been resistant to methodological changes in the field of language teaching that have been proposed since the 1970s. Although today a post-method era is assumed, in which strategies that best serve their goals and work contexts are chosen (Katz et al., 2020), many Spanish teachers continue to structure their pedagogies around the simplified proposals of textbooks, centered on a sequence of grammatical rules and a selection of models of what is “correct,” considered the only ones with value as social capital. Of course, some teachers work using other methods, such as the communicative setting, the skills-based model, or task-based method, but this is generally done as a complement to the textbook. 

Teaching Spanish in Bilingual Programs
Bilingual education in the United States has a complex and intricate history, intertwined with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and with important socio-political ramifications for Spanish-speaking communities. Bilingual education won its first battle in 1968, when the Bilingual Education Act was passed, allocating for the first time a federal budget to implement bilingual programs. In 1974, Lau v. Nichols case led the Supreme Court to order school districts to offer bilingual programs to educate non-English speaking children. However, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan spoke out against bilingual education, and in 1998 the English Only movement (sponsored by California businessman Run Unz) emerged with great force, leading several states, including California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, to ban bilingual education. The same policy was followed by George W. Bush with his No Child Left Behind agenda in 2001. However, in 2016, several states reinstated the possibility of bilingual education. Since then, access has varied from state to state and from one school district to the other.

There are two main types of bilingual programs: transitional and dual immersion. In transitional curricula, for children classified as “Limited English Proficient,” “Language Minority Student,” or “English Language Learners,” Spanish is used as means in the transition to English instruction and does not support the development of bilingual and biliteracy skills in Spanish (Gándara & Escamilla, 2017). For this reason, they have been characterized and criticized as assimilationists.

So-called “dual immersion” or “two-way” programs do seek to develop bilingualism, biliteracy, and transcultural skills. Dual immersion, usually with 50% of Latino children and 50% of English-speaking children, starts in kindergarten and can have different academic structures: some programs use Spanish and English to teach different academic subjects; others split half the day for instruction in Spanish and half in English; others teach one week in Spanish and one in English.

Although educational research has shown that dual immersion, even for a short time, benefits academic performance and reading skills development in both languages of the Latino population, it has three aspects that directly affect Latino children: a) lack of access, since most of these programs are located in cities where the English speaking middle-class lives, whose economic power and social advantages ensure a place for their children in these schools; b) pedagogy, because second language pedagogy tends to be used, which, as we will see later on, is not the most convenient for Latino students, and c) the strict separation of Spanish and English promoted in these programs, which marginalizes and stigmatizes the translanguaging practices [see box] of Latino students, with important academic and affective consequences. Feelings of linguistic insecurity set in, to the detriment of their identity and their motivation to continue using Spanish. In this way, it contributes to the many experiences of segregation, discrimination, and stigmatization that Latino youth experience within educational settings, at all levels (Martinez & Train, 2020). 

Spanish as a Heritage Language (HL)
In middle and higher education there is also a lack of adequate and sufficient programs for Latino students. This leads them to enroll in Spanish as second language courses. However, even though there may be similarities in the linguistic profiles between Latino students, students of Spanish as a second language and as a heritage language, these courses are not optimal for working with the strengths, interests, and needs of this population.

First, Spanish is not a second language for Latino students. Second, the motivations for learning Spanish are very different for each group: learners of Spanish as a second language have academic, cultural, prestige, and even economic motivations; Latino students are motivated to (re)connect with their family and cultural heritage, to strengthen their ethnolinguistic identity and sense of belonging, and to serve their community. Finally, Spanish as a second language pedagogy, with its focus on grammar, does not consider the lexical, textual, illocutionary, socio-pragmatic, and stylistic variation skills of the variants that Latino students learn from their families and their communities and that also include, most of the time, their English skills. This bilingualism makes this population qualitatively different from monolingual populations, both English and Spanish.

Guadalupe Valdés’ pioneering work began to open the way for specific pedagogies for teaching Spanish to Latino youth (Valdés, 1997; Valdés, Lozano, & García Moya, 1981). These pedagogies place at the center of curriculum design the students’ identity and the topics that are meaningful to them, rather than a sequence of grammatical structures. Teaching work does not focus on eradicating the few stigmatized forms used by students nor on correcting their translanguaging speech practices (García & Wei, 2014), but on making visible and validating their linguistic diversity, while giving them access to the form and uses of the dominant language (García & Otheguy, 2019). The goal is to provide them with all the resources they need to fully participate in the communities to which they belong, whether personal, academic, or professional.

Research has demonstrated the following benefits of this pedagogy: a) expansion of the oral and written Spanish repertoire; b) strengthening of the sense of identity, self-esteem, and belonging; c) improved academic performance, and d) increased likelihood of completing university studies. 

Final Thoughts
The purpose of this essay has been to reflect on the pedagogical and socio-political complexity behind teaching Spanish. Its invention as a “mother,” “second,” “foreign,” or “heritage” language teaching includes some and excludes others, given the nation-state ideologies that underpin this categories. Thus, teaching Spanish in the 21st Century would have to be rethought in relation not to social constructions of language, but to the proliferation of educational programs and the use of pedagogies that give equitable and fair access to the multiple benefits of the language to all its speakers, whether monolingual or bilingual.


UNAM Internacional

Ofelia García and Li Wei synthesized in their book Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism & education (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) the debates and contributions that for at least a decade have revolved around this concept. The authors define translanguaging (according to María Luisa Parra Velasco, author of this article) “as the complex speech practices of bilingual people where the speaker deploys and uses the resources of their linguistic repertoire without distinguishing specific languages.” 

Behind this reality, which is increasingly present in the world given the intense migratory flows we are currently witnessing as a result of social and political conflicts as well as events related to climate change, lies a concept used by Welsh linguist Cen Williams in the 1990s: trawsieithu, a Welsh term by which he referred to “a pedagogical practice where students in bilingual Welsh/English classrooms are asked to alternate languages for the purposes of receptive or productive use” (Ofelia García & Angel M. Y. Lin, “Translanguaging in bilingual education”. In Ofelia García & Angel M. Y. Lin (Eds.), Bilingual and Multilingual Education (Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Vol. 5). Dordrecht: Springer.

María Luisa Parra Velasco is Senior Preceptor in the Department of Romanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. She studied Psychology at UNAM and obtained her doctoral degree in Linguistics at El Colegio de México. Her research interests focus on acquisition of Spanish as a mother, second and heritage language among Latino childhood and youth in the United States. Her teaching follows critical pedagogy, multiple literacy and participative pedagogies with youth and communities. She is a consultant and collaborator of El Colegio de México’s Linguistics and Education Seminar. Her most recent book, Teaching Spanish and Latino Youth was published by Arco Libros in 2021. 

This article is a simplified versión of its original, modified with permission of the author for dissemination pourposes in UNAM Internacional.

Del Valle, José (2011). “Política del lenguaje y geopolítica: España, la RAE y la población Latina de Estados  Unidos”. In Senz, S., & Alberete, M. (Eds.) El Dardo en la Academia, Vol. I: 551-732. Barcelona: Melusina.

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García, Ofelia, & Li Wei (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism & education. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. 

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Martínez, Glenn A., & Train, Robert W. (2020). Tension and Contention in Language Education for Latinxs in the United States: Experience and Ethics in Teaching and Learning. Routledge.

Munguía Zatarain, Irma (2015). “La ausencia de la formación gramatical en la enseñanza del español en México y sus efectos”. Iztapalapa. Revista de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades 79: 11-29.

Valdés, Guadalupe (1997). “The teaching of Spanish to bilingual Spanish-speaking students: Outstanding issues and unanswered questions”. In Colombi, M. C., & Alarcón, F. X. (Eds.), La enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Valdés, Guadalupe; Lozano, Aanthony G., & García-Moya, Rodolfo (Eds.) (1981). Teaching Spanish to the Hispanic bilingual: Issues, aims, and methods. New York: Teachers College Press. 
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