The diverse experiences of heritage speakers at a Guatemalan language school: Linguistic agency in the contact zone

Julia Menard- Warwick, Shannon Kehoe, and Deborah Palmer


Pratt (1991) uses the term contact zone to “refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (p. 34). While most heritage speakers have plenty of experience living in contact zones, study abroad (SA) contexts provide opportunities for such speakers to confront cultural boundaries with renewed intensity - and in so doing, to develop new linguistic capabilities. Language classrooms in SA contexts are contact zones par excellence, but they have been little explored in previous studies, and still less has the SA literature examined the classroom experiences of heritage speakers.

While research on Spanish heritage speakers (SHSs) has primarily focused on defining the educational needs of this population (e.g., Leeman, 2015), most research on SHSs in SA has examined these students’ identity development (e.g., Quan, Pozzi, Kehoe, & Menard-Warwick, 2018), primarily through interviews. This chapter, in contrast, analyzes the varied experiences of three SHS university students during six weeks of coursework at a well-established Guatemalan language school. To theorize our findings, we examine students’ linguistic agency, which Ahearn (2001) defines as “the socioculturally-mediated capacity to act” (p. 112), within the contact zone of the classroom. Our central research question is the following:

How and to what extent do the affordances of a Guatemalan language school support linguistic agency on the part of SHSs from different backgrounds during SA?

In answering this question, we do not attempt to show longitudinal development in these students’ linguistic agency during their time in Guatemala; rather, we illustrate how the exercise of agency was shaped by the interaction between students’ personal goals and the pedagogical affordances of each classroom.

Review of the literature

In this section, we first examine the theoretical concept of agency in research on language learners, and then explore issues of agency in the SHS literature, especially in SA contexts.

Agency and language learning

Recent authors who theorize agency in language learning have built on Ahearn’s (2001) definition of it as “the socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (p. 112). Equating agency with neither free will nor resistance, she stresses that the exercise of agency is shaped by cultural practices and social influences. Reiterating that the “capacity to act” in Ahearn’s definition does not refer to individual competence, van Lier (2008) advocates for a sociocultural understanding of agency within pedagogical planning. As Duran (2015) confirms, “the coexistence of learners’ linguistic repertoires and desire in a particularly appropriate space may set forth agency” (p. 75). That is, agency in language classes is not a possession or quality that learners have, but rather something that they can exercise given appropriate opportunities.

While Ahearn (2001) notes widespread tendencies for the reproduction of social inequality within the exercise of agency, she also emphasizes the human potential for developing new ways to use language. As van Lier (2008) elaborates, “learning an L2 and becoming engaged in a new culture ... involves adjusting one’s sense of self and creating new identities to connect the known to the new” (p. 177). Creating new identities in contact zones clearly involves the exercise of agency, and often these new identities come with additional affordances that enable further agentive participation. However, at times language learning involves reclaiming what has been lost: Lin (2015) describes a program in a Taiwanese indigenous community that fostered heritage language development through reconnecting children with their grandparents. In this case, the affordances of their grandparents’ language were drawn upon by these children as they engaged in meaningful activities (van Lier, 2008). Thus, Lin views learners’ agency as shaped by their network of relationships. This is also what we observed in Guatemalan language classrooms.

Learning Spanish as a heritage language

Similarly, Shin (2016) conceptualizes heritage language learning “as a dialogical relationship between one’s past, present, and future in the negotiation of identities” (p. 33). However, heritage language learner identity is often seen by educational institutions as a unitary profile involving predictable proficiencies and deficits. In this way, diverse speakers are assigned to a normative pedagogical category of identity, which often constrains rather than enables their possibilities for exercising linguistic agency.

To remedy these tendencies, and to validate SHS students’ identity and linguistic needs, Carreira (2004) advocates fitting “the course to the student, rather than the student to the course” (p. 21).

Carreira’s (2004) recommendation is in keeping with the literature on agency already cited, but runs counter to many institutional practices, which often exacerbate SHS students’ linguistic insecurity through holding them to “native-like standards” (Goble, 2016, p. 44). While Showstack (2017) blames these standardizing tendencies on the widespread devaluation of home and community language practices, Martinez and Petrucci (2004) connect linguistic insecurity more specifically to “state mandated standardized testing and placement” (p. 89). As an alternative, Reznicek-Parrado, Patino-Vega, and Colombi (2018) advocate for SHSs “becoming active participants and learning to negotiate, construct, and index new identities as members of the academic community” (p. 153). They emphasize collaboration among SHS peers as enabling “learners to take more risks, ask more questions, and open up about their learning trajectories” (p. 165).

However, the realization of these processes in classroom discourse remains unexplored; observations of heritage language classrooms have tended to find students’ identity claims discounted by instructors and classmates. Indeed, Showstack (2017) found SHSs competing against each other for legitimacy. When Bowles, Toth, and Adams (2014) investigated pair work in a classroom that mixed SHSs with other Spanish learners, they found that the SHSs’ classmates appreciated their expertise, while SHSs’ own pedagogical needs remained unmet.

Similarly, SA programs are rarely designed to meet the linguistic or identity needs of SHSs. Indeed, local residents in SA contexts may view SHSs as deficient native speakers (Riegelhaupt & Carrasco, 2000), triggering their linguistic insecurity (Goble, 2016; Martinez & Petrucci, 2004). While several studies show that SA can encourage SHS students’ ethnolinguistic identity development (Quan et al., 2018: Riegelhaupt & Carrasco, 2000), SA research has not engaged with SHS participants’ classroom experiences, nor examined how programs respond to the needs of participants from different backgrounds. In this chapter, we demonstrate how the affordances of SA classroom contexts facilitated linguistic agency for three SHSs with varied goals and levels of proficiency.

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