Accommodation to Peninsular Spanish

Previous research shows that Mexican American heritage speakers do not accommodate to salient Peninsular features such as /0/ and vosotros. Any observed accommodation seems to be driven by social factors, but, even among the small number of participants, very different motivations were observed. This suggests that heritage speakers abroad compose a heterogeneous group, one that merits continued investigation.

The five participants in this study showed awareness of Peninsular Spanish features. However, and perhaps unsurprisingly due to the short duration of the study abroad program, they did not accommodate to everything that they noticed. They showed almost no accommodation to the salient phonological and morphosyntactic features seen in previous work. Rather, their use of Peninsular features suggests different avenues of research.

The most salient phonological feature was interdental /0/, suggesting that it is perhaps the sound most emblematic of Peninsular Spanish. Despite this awareness, only Nancy produced it. In comparison to the L2 learners in George (2014) and Pope (2016) particularly, these heritage speakers were less likely to show phonological accommodation.

Surprisingly, no participant mentioned vosotros, nor did they produce it in any task. Their avoidance of the pronoun might relate to minimal positive contacts with Spaniards (e.g., George, 2018; Reynolds-Case, 2013; Ringer-Hilfinger, 2013). In the case of Nancy, who seemed to have the most positive connections with Spaniards, her limited proficiency may have kept her from being able to use vosotros in speech.

Denisse and Julia mentioned the use of tu and usted with older interlocutors, a morphosyntactic feature that is not mentioned in the research on

“Aquí el español es muy diferente” 69 heritage speakers studying in Spain. They had been chastised by Spaniards for using usted, with a host brother and professors, respectively. Julia had been taught by her mother to use usted with elders, so she was uncomfortable using tú. Denisse defaulted to usted, even initially with Diana. Her use of the formal pronoun with an age peer who is a stranger mirrors L2 learners in France (Kinginger, 2008), who inappropriately selected the formal pronoun vous to address classmates with which they were not acquainted, citing this lack of acquaintance as their reason. Although Denisse was not an L2 learner of Spanish, her use of usted with Diana may have been driven by similar reasoning.

Variation between standard he and non-standard ha has also not been mentioned in the literature. The two participants who showed such variation did not indicate any explicit knowledge of he versus ha. However, Dani’s initial use of he and Julia’s corrections from ha to he suggest awareness of ha as inappropriate in Spain. Neither participant, however, was able to maintain he completely throughout the conversation.

More accommodation was observed in the lexicon than at any other level, despite the fact that previous research has tended to focus on phonological and morphosyntactic accommodation. Claudia, Dani, and Denisse produced Peninsular words with their conversation partners, seemingly deliberately, as they all showed switches from Mexican to Peninsular words in the middle of an utterance. Interestingly, several of Claudia’s switches back to Mexican lexical items occurred when she was discussing the robbery of her phone. Although the conversation was not a sociolinguistic interview, this topic resembles the danger of death question, which would be likely to elicit the most unmonitored speech (Labov, 1972). The fact that Claudia struggled to maintain Peninsular words in unmonitored speech suggests that her accommodation was a deliberate choice. Even Nancy, who spoke mostly in English, used Peninsular words. There were exceptions, however. Julia maintained Mexican lexical items throughout the conversation, despite her belief that she had limited them.

Language and identity

Spanish-speaking heritage speakers who study abroad in Spanish-speaking locations may have to navigate issues of identity and language. Complicating factors include their proficiency in the heritage language, judgments toward their home dialect, their sense of connection with the local community, their interactions with locals, and their race/ethnicity (e.g., George & Hoffman-González, 2014, 2019; Kentengian & Peace, 2019; Moreno, 2009; Quan, 2018; Riegelhaupt & Carrasco, 2000; Shively, 2016). The host community may have certain expectations of heritage speakers; Shively (2016, p. 268) suggests that heritage speakers “may be held to monolingual norms [...] and expected to behave accordingly according to the cultural expectations of the host country”. However, they can circumvent those expectations, using languageto enact identities that they see as more appropriate (e.g., Kentengian & Peace, 2019).

Previous research on heritage learners studying abroad in Spain suggests that they have little desire to fit in, at least in a linguistic sense, in that they do not accommodate. Interviews show that they do not interact much with locals, either members of their host family or local peers (e.g., George & Hoffman-Gonzalez, 2014, 2019; Kentengian & Peace, 2019; Quan, 2018). This suggests a general disconnect between heritage speakers and the study abroad community.

The present study somewhat contradicts this, in that these heritage speakers showed more accommodation with Spanish age peers. This accommodation was principally at the lexical level, something not observed in previous work. However, the amount of accommodation observed differed. Nancy accommodated, to the extent that her limited proficiency allowed it. Claudia, Dani, and Denisse varied between their dialect and Peninsular Spanish, and Julia accommodated the least. They demonstrate the multiple ways in which identity can be enacted through language in interaction, and how speakers can either claim or refuse identities through their linguistic choices.

Of the five participants, Claudia likely had the strongest connection to Mexico; however, she did not maintain Mexican Spanish. As in Riegelhaupt and Carrasco (2000), negative reactions from Spaniards and corrections from her host mother lead her to make a concerted effort to incorporate Peninsular lexical items into her speech. This suggests to the researcher that Claudia wished to present herself not as a Mexican, but rather as a worldly, transnational Spanish speaker, capable of adjusting to new situations.

Dani and Denisse also accommodated to Peninsular Spanish, but for a different reason. They believed that Peninsular Spanish was more formal and correct than their own variety. Moreover, they had spoken little Spanish during their childhood and felt that their abilities were limited. In fact, both stated that they did not consider themselves to be Mexican. Dani considered herself American, and Denisse struggled to identify herself.

I’ve always been confused as to what I consider myself ... I’ve always been told, ‘You don’t look Hispanic’ ... 1 guess the reason why I never really spoke Spanish was cause I was embarrassed ... or 1 was always being corrected ... I’m still trying to come to terms with what I am.

(Denisse, Interview)

Dani and Denisse used language to distance themselves from a Mexican heritage to which they did not feel connected and from a variety that they considered too informal for Spain.

Nancy showed the most accommodation to Peninsular Spanish, at least within what her limited proficiency would allow. She felt disconnected from her heritage, largely because she had limited proficiency in Spanish,

“Aquí el español es muy diferente” 71 which she had not been taught so as to avoid discrimination from Anglos. Her resulting monolingualism had brought censure from Mexicans as well. “The whole society, like, ‘Oh, you’re Hispanic, you don’t speak Spanish, what a shame’ ... it prevents me from even wanting to start” (Nancy, Interview). Nancy felt that she did not belong in either the Mexican or the Anglo community. Spain offered her a chance to reinvent herself. She could ask Spaniards for translations, spellings, and corrections, and they did not judge or embarrass her. Thus, she used language to present an identity more connected to Spain than to a home in which she felt she did not belong.

Bucholtz and Hall’s (2004) tactics of intersubjectivity, or ways in which language can be used to create relationships, provide a framework through which the participants’ identity work can be understood. Four tactics of interest to this study include: adequation, “the pursuit of socially recognized sameness”; distinction, in which “difference is underscored rather than erased”; authentication, in which language is used to “provide a sense of cohesion and unity”; and denaturalization, which “[highlights] the artificiality and non-essentialism of identity” (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004, pp. 382-386).

Adequation was used by four participants. Denisse and Dani felt that Peninsular Spanish was superior to Mexican American Spanish, Denisse and Nancy had been judged by US Hispanics for not speaking Spanish well, and Claudia was judged by Spaniards for speaking too much like a Mexican. For these reasons and through their linguistic choices, they de-emphasized differences between themselves and Spaniards.

Conversely, Julia maintained her home dialect. The data suggest that her maintenance of her home dialect was related to her sense of connection with her family and her desire to speak in a way approved by them. Additional evidence came from her answer to how she would say “cool”. “No me gusta decirlo, como yo siempre hablo con gente mayor en español ... cuando yo estoy en la casa, vivo con dos de mis tíos y mis papas ... yo nunca les digo así que son cool” [“I don't like saying it, since I always speak with older people in Spanish ... when I’m at home, I live with my aunt and uncle and my parents ... I never tell them that they're cool'] (Julia, Interview). Julia’s association of Spanish with family may have affected how she spoke in Spain. She may not have wished to speak any differently than what her close-knit Mexican family would prefer.

Julia’s language showed distinction, but it does not seem to have been done consciously. Rather, these differences were likely the result of authentication. Julia’s linguistic choices seem to have been guided by her sense of unity with her family in New Jersey and her idea of herself as a Mexican American. She felt more connected with her home community than with the study abroad community, and her language use reflected this.

The opposite tactic, denaturalization, sheds additional light on Nancy’s choices. Whereas authentication focuses on genuineness, denaturalizationchallenges it. Julia’s language use was the natural result of her Mexican heritage; however, Nancy’s actions refute the idea that there is a natural way for a Mexican American to speak. She challenged the idea that speaking Mexican Spanish was an essential part of her identity and, rather, emphasized a stronger connection with Peninsular Spanish. Nancy’s relatively low proficiency in Spanish and her inability to fully complete the tasks in Spanish might suggest removing her from the analysis. However, the results argue in favor of including her, as they present a way of interacting with the host culture that differed greatly from the other participants, from previous research, and from what might therefore have been expected.

Nancy’s performance, as well as the other variety observed in the results, underscore the importance of avoiding essentialist definitions of heritage speakers, their language use, and their identities. Essentialism refers to the “position that maintains that those who occupy an identity category [such as Mexican Americans who study abroad in Spain] are both fundamentally similar to one another and fundamentally different from members of other groups (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004, p. 374). Rather, heritage speakers are individuals who enact different identities in interactions and position themselves both spatially and temporally (e.g., Blommaert & De Fina, 2017; Kinginger, 2004; Norton, 2013). Some may look backwards in time, presenting an identity that connects to their family and heritage. Others may look forward, distancing themselves from a less-prestigious heritage. Others may desire to claim a global and cosmopolitan identity. Finally, as a result of past discrimination, heritage speakers may refuse the identity of their heritage and instead seek to adopt the language and culture of the study abroad destination.


The conclusions in this study can only be considered tentative, as they were not triangulated with the participants. The data analysis was conducted after data collection, at which point it was not possible to contact all participants for further interviews. Future studies that analyze the ways in which heritage speakers interact with locals in the study abroad community might include post-hoc interviews with the participants, in order to more fully understand their linguistic choices and identity work.

Similarly, the conclusions presented here come from only five participants. While case studies provide rich description, the results cannot be generalizable to all heritage speakers who study abroad. It is hoped that the diversity of experiences presented through these five participants bring about additional and more in-depth research on a greater number of heritage speakers abroad.

Finally, this paper examined heritage speakers’ linguistic choices through the lens of accommodation. However, accommodation is only one

“Aquí el español es muy diferente” 73 explanation. Another one is priming, in which exposure to a stimulus provokes a response. Priming effects have been found on a number of linguistic levels (Cameron & Flores-Ferrán, 2004). The participants’ use of Peninsular lexical items may have been the replication of forms heard earlier in the speech of their Spanish conversation partners. Future studies might consider priming as a potential explanation for the speech of heritage speakers abroad.

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