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Program reconnects Spanish speakers to language

Craig Mahaffy makes fellow Spanish heritage language students laugh.

Business major Craig Mahaffy makes fellow students Maria Alejandra Felix (left) and Maria Fernanda Felix laugh as he describes his use of music to build his Spanish skills during an ASU Spanish heritage language course on Aug. 27 on the Tempe campus. The courses are meant to help native speakers and others with a firm grasp on the language to polish their skills.
Photo by: Deanna Dent/ASU News

September 14, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of stories to mark Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

Nobody in Craig Mahaffy’s family speaks any Spanish, so it might seem odd that he is enrolled in the Spanish heritage language program in Arizona State University’s School of International Letters and Cultures.

The junior in business with a focus on global politics said he discovered the program — aimed more at native speakers or those who already have a firm grasp on the language — when he found general second-language Spanish classes weren’t challenging enough for him. He had picked up the language while dating a girl from Mexico whose mother spoke only Spanish.

“I would make us speak only in Spanish for like a month just so I could practice it,” said Mahaffy said of that relationship.

That’s one of the things Spanish heritage class instructor Roberto Ortiz Manzanilla loves about the program: He said the heritage classes are a great mix of people from different cultures, including Spanish-speaking countries and American Spanish speakers.

Secondary education junior Hayden Ballesteros is a native Spanish speaker, having come to the United States from Panama as a child, and was excited to find the heritage program at ASU:

“It made me feel a lot more comfortable because I definitely was not looking forward to sitting through a class of how to say ‘hola,’” Ballesteros said.

Sara Beaudrie, associate professor of Spanish linguistics and head of the Spanish heritage language program, said it’s the mission of the program to “promote Spanish language development and maintenance in the Southwestern United States.”

“Unfortunately a lot of [Spanish heritage program students] grow up ashamed of speaking Spanish and are forced to speak only in English. … A lot of them are already losing the language,” she said. “This program gives them the opportunity to regain those skills that they once had.”

Spanish Heritage Courses at Arizona State University from Arizona State University on Vimeo.

Manzanilla said the heritage program is different in many ways: Spanish-as-a-second-language classes usually consist of several short vocabulary-type activities, whereas the Spanish heritage classes focus on a few larger language concepts.

“Heritage learners’ needs are different from traditional second-language learners, who have not been in constant contact with Spanish while growing up,” Beaudrie said. “We offer these separate courses as a recognition of heritage learners’ unique abilities and needs within our classrooms, and as a way to expand our Spanish-speaking community at Arizona State University.”

That’s important to students like Ballesteros, for more than one reason: “This program allows us to build on the knowledge we already have,” while also acknowledging the importance of the Spanish language in today’s society.

“Spanish is one of the most spoken languages throughout the world. I can almost guarantee you that you will meet at least one person a month who only speaks Spanish, and it is an awesome feeling to be able to connect and communicate with that person on a different level,” said Ballesteros.

The School of International Letters and Cultures is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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