Tertulia Podcast presents “Inmersos/Immersed”

In the first part of this series about the Spanish immersion education boom in West Michigan, we talk about how 6 of the 31 programs in the region are serving a small proportion of local Latino students who are English learners. In particular, we look at two public schools with dual language programs in Holland and Grand Rapids, where kids who fall into this category are able to access their legal right to an equal opportunity education via a model proven to improve their academic outcomes in English, all while helping them maintain their home language.

The second part looks at the other 25 programs in the area, wich are designed to help students who already speak English to acquire Spanish. In a region where the vast majority of Latino English learner students are being educated in monolingual settings where the chances of them achieving advanced levels of bilingualism and biliteracy are quite low, 4 out of 5 seats in Spanish immersion classrooms are reserved for a group of kids that are solidly on their way to the elite class, as it is.

The first episode of this series is in Spanish and the second one is in English. Both are complementary parts of one single story, not translations of the same content. Start here with part one, and click here to explore the data that I collected for this series.

Kitchen Spanish update – podcast collaboration with Racist Sandwich

Several months ago, I wrote about the linguistic phenomenon known as Kitchen Spanish. I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I pitched a segment to the podcast, Racist Sandwich, and they were up for it! My own podcast, Tertulia, is in Spanish, so this is my first reported audio story in (mostly) English. In the piece you’ll hear interviews with staff from restaurants here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, including Donkey Taquería and MeXo (which is slated to open on April 17, 2018).

Listen to the Racist Sandwich episode “Kitchen Spanish” here.

New episode of Tertulia podcast – ¿Dónde estamos parados?

The latest episode of Tertulia is a conversation with Leticia Molinero, professional translator and member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española. Among other things, we talked about how taking a rigorous approach to analyzing U.S. Spanish and coming up with standardized language can play a role in resolving the communication crisis that our country faces in upholding the rights of Spanish-dominant residents.

Check out the episode here.


What’s the point of caring about Spanish in the U.S.?

There’s a phrase in Spanish, sentimientos encontrados, that would most often be translated as “mixed feelings” in English. What’s interesting to me about the Spanish is that encontrar also means to meet or to find; for me, it conjures up an image of two feelings traveling in opposite directions around a circle until they find themselves approaching one another, scratching their heads, wondering how they got there.

I think the United States has sentimientos encontrados when it comes to Spanish. One of the areas that this is most evident is in education. Spanish is the most taught and most studied world language (other than English) at all levels of education here, yet at the same time there are many states and jurisdictions that have adopted or are attempting to adopt “English only” policies (1), some of which even prohibit the use of other languages in classrooms for children who are just learning English for the first time.

Some people are very concerned that children who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes will not learn English, despite research showing that this concern is essentially baseless (2), so they want to prevent them from maintaining or developing their Spanish skills. At the same time, there is a boom in Spanish immersion programs across the country (including West Michigan) to give children from English-speaking homes the gift of English-Spanish bilingualism. This is what scholars call “differential bilingualism” (3), and it is a perfect example of sentimientos encontrados.

On the other end of the spectrum, some jurisdictions — such as the District of Columbia where I used to live — have language access laws that require that government services be made available in the native languages of those with limited English skills. The people who benefit from language access laws are by and large first generation Americans, whose children will certainly learn English and will likely even prefer it over their parents’ language(s).

While speaking on the topic of language access, it seems that most of the Spanish in the U.S. that one encounters has been translated from English — whether it be IRS instructions on filling out a 1040, public health brochures at the hospital, or notices posted on the walls of the employee breakroom. There is some original Spanish content to be found in traditional and online media and the arts, but it is much harder to come by than Spanish that is the product of a translation (4).

Thinking about these phenomena has led me to ponder my own path. I’ve been studying, speaking, reading, writing, teaching, and researching Spanish for the past 26 years. I hold two degrees in Spanish. I have a business whose mission is to support the use of Spanish as a vibrant language for culture, commerce, and community building. I am speaking to my own infant son only in Spanish, for goodness’ sake!

What’s the point of caring so much about Spanish in the U.S.? Will the use of Spanish become passé if immigration from Spanish-speaking countries slows and younger generations don’t feel compelled to maintain it?

These questions get at the very core of my life’s work and vision, even my own identity. I don’t come from a family of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Nor am I a person of longstanding U.S. Latino heritage who has sought to “retro-acculturate” (5) through the Spanish language. If you had to put me in a category, you might put me in the same group as the many native English-speaking kids that are spending most of their formative years in Spanish immersion schools because their parents believe in the value of bilingualism.

I am a Spanish speaker. Just not the kind you typically think of when you hear that phrase.

Now, what kind of communities are we creating for Spanish speakers? Is the next generation of bilinguals — both native Spanish-speaking kids and kids who learn Spanish as a second language — supposed to abruptly stop using Spanish on a daily basis once they leave home or graduate from high school? In the U.S., outside of a few emblematic cities and neighborhoods, we aren’t very good at creating communities where adults can engage practically, culturally, and intellectually with Spanish in the real world.

And that just seems like a waste of resources and a whole lot of missed opportunities.

Instead, I think that we should work on intentionally building more bilingual institutions and spaces in our communities here in the U.S., not just translate our signs and our brochures. They say a suggestion without an offer to help is just a complaint — so through Tertulia, I’m going to try to start creating some of these spaces myself.

Stay tuned!


(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-only_movement#Current_law

(2) Tse, Lucy. (2001). "Why don't they learn English?": Separating fact and fallacy in the U.S. language debate. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. & http://qz.com/771831/the-future-of-spanish-speaking-america-is-under-threat/

(3) Aparicio, F. (2000). Of Spanish dispossessed. In González, R. Dueñas & I. Melis (Eds.) Language ideologies: Critical perspectives on the Official English movement (pp. 248-275). Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

(4) http://riuss.org/translation/

(5) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/future-of-the-us-economy-depend-on-hispanic-market-_n_1432109.html

(6) http://news.ets.org/news/bilingualism-a-growing-value-to-u.s.-labor-market

Special thanks to Espausa for sharing many of these thought-provoking links.

Alfabetización en español

The word for “literacy” in Spanish is an example of linguistic ingenuity: alfabetización. An invented English translation would be “alphabetization,” or acquisition of the alphabet, the set of building blocks for written communication.

An image of a classic silabario, or a phonetics book that uses basic syllables to teach Spanish literacy. This silabario is designed for children, but I have seen it used to teach literacy to Spanish-speaking adults in the U.S., which demonstrates the need for pedagogically appropriate curricula for this population.


Over the last 10 years I have developed a strong curiosity and academic interest in adult literacy. For children with access to education, learning to read and write is an age-appropriate activity that is nurtured and celebrated. But children without access to education, or who have access but experience barriers to developing literacy, become adults who often hide their inability to read and write and have to come up with survival strategies for living in a world of assumed literacy.

The latest figures from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy showed that 14% of adults in the U.S. lack basic literacy skills in English. Within that group of the population, 39% identified as Hispanic.

Those who identify as Hispanic may not necessarily speak Spanish, and they may not necessarily be first-generation immigrants, but the term “Hispanic” is used to group people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds who all share some relationship to the Spanish language.

Let’s assume that some of those Hispanics who lack basic literacy skills in English are Spanish speakers. I have collected anecdotal evidence from every place I have lived in the U.S. that there is a subset of Spanish speakers who arrive here with little or no literacy skills in Spanish. (I haven’t found a good source to give a number here, and this information would be very difficult to collect through traditional census or survey methods which require that respondents be literate!)

One source estimates that it would take 500-1000 hours of instruction for an adult who is literate in his or her native language to acquire basic literacy skills in English. The key phrase in that sentence is “literate in his or her native language.” If such an adult received instruction for 3 hours each week, 52 weeks a year with no vacations, it would take him or her over 3 years to accumulate 500 hours of instruction. How much longer would it take an adult who is not literate in his or her native language?

Let’s go back to those children who don’t have access to education or who face barriers to developing literacy. Then imagine those children growing up to become adults who leave their countries of origin and arrive in the U.S. where they have to learn to communicate in a new language, English. There are ESL programs available to them through schools, churches, and community organizations, but when they walk in to the first session, the instructor starts writing on the board and handing out texts or workbooks.

These are courageous people.

As someone who has never experienced anything like this, I assume it would be a little bit like arriving in a remote part of Japan, where I not only do not understand the language being spoken, I also can’t decipher any of the written characters on signs or printed materials to attempt to associate the sounds I hear with what I see.

As I mentioned before, I have collected anecdotal evidence that nearly every Latino community in the U.S. probably has a small group of first generation Spanish-speaking adult immigrants who are not literate in Spanish. Those communities with large populations of immigrants from countries with lower literacy rates, such as Guatemala or Bolivia, may have greater numbers of Spanish speakers who cannot read or write in their native language. Furthermore, Latin Americans from indigenous backgrounds may speak Spanish as a second or third language, which could represent even greater barriers to Spanish literacy.

I am currently doing research to find Spanish literacy curricula developed specifically for non-literate Latino immigrants, who were not only marginalized in their countries of origin, but are also living on the fringes of a marginalized group in the U.S.

The Centro Latino for Literacy in Los Angeles has developed one such curriculum, called Leamos. You can view a video about their initiative here that includes a testimonial from a woman named Mercedes.

I will post more updates as I dig deeper into this important issue. Be grateful for your literacy skills today!



Two recent encounters

I had two recent encounters with Spanish mixed right smack dab in with English as part of the American experience. Just like that!

The episode of This American Life from November 8th featured a story about Chris García (who also happens to be a comedian), his father, and a conversation they had while driving along a familiar route through Los Angeles. Chris and his father speak Spanish/Spanglish with one another, and although Chris narrates the story and retells their conversation in English, you can catch snippets of their original conversation which Chris recorded on his phone. The story is quite touching so I won’t give much more away about the content or context of their conversation, but there were a couple of things I found interesting from a linguistic point of view:

  • Chris refers to his father as “Dad”
  • Chris responds affirmatively with “uh-huh” and “yeah”
  • Chris states the number 218 as “dos eighteen” (then “dos uno ocho,” but never “dos dieciocho” or “two eighteen”)

The choices we make when code-switching are always fascinating to me. Using English words or phrases that make more sense than their Spanish translations in the context of driving around L.A. (e.g. “ride” and “high school”) was no surprise to me, but I was especially intrigued by the code-switching in the middle of expressing one single number. (I could just be behind on my scholarly reading.)

My other encounter was in All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. To me this was a very American novel, full of cowboys and ranches, bootstrap ambitions, and descriptions of sunsets across the untamed West, but perhaps unlike other samples of traditional Americana there are stretches of dialogue in Spanish without translations. (Either McCarthy himself is bilingual or he collaborates with someone to write the passages, and so far the internet hasn’t helped me to figure out which it is.) The main character is a Texan who grows up speaking English and Spanish and who crosses the border into Mexico and back. Another interesting aspect of the book is that several of the Mexican characters located in Mexico are portrayed as completely competent communicating in English. The speech of others is portrayed as broken or with an accent. Overall I found McCarthy’s treatment of dialect and idiolect as varied and realistic, rather than monolithic and stereotypical.

As a bilingual reader, I felt like a special member of a particular audience that McCarthy knew would have a certain sensibility and that would comprehend his novel without the aid of outside sources (such as the many websites featuring translations of the Spanish passages). That’s probably just a stretch of both my imagination and my ego, but you never know…

McCarthy has written a number of novels and screenplays that take place along the US-Mexico border, of which several have been adapted for film including All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.