Spanish 101 for Heritage Speakers? A Love Letter

Hola mis queridos estudiantes.

If you are a heritage speaker of Spanish, you may have easily recognized that warm introduction. In fact, if you’re getting ready to take my Spanish 101 course (either in person or online), you will probably recognize easily a LOT of the things I say in the first few weeks. While your peers are nervously trying out new words, a new(ish) alphabet, and new sentence structures, you may be floating easily back and forth between your two languages.

This post is a love note from me to you guys: I am honored and respectful of the efforts you are making to (re)connect with a family language. I earnestly hope this will be a good experience for you, but that being said, studying ANY language and at ANY level is not all rainbows and flowers.

If you’re signing up for a Spanish 101 (or even a 102) course as a heritage speaker, you may be thinking it is an easy A. And the thing is… you might be right up to a point… Heritage speakers tend to have a much easier time with speaking and listening as you have maybe grown up hearing and even speaking some Spanish at home or in your community. That’s great! And there is definitely room for that in a Spanish 101 classroom.

I know the first few weeks may seem boring, but they are crucial for you. BECAUSE…

Just as easy as you find listening and speaking, I bet reading and writing is a lot harder. Typically what we find is that heritage learners (or heritage ‘listeners’ as a colleague of mine once called them) is that you don’t necessarily know the rules. That’s OK! That’s exactly what Spanish 101 (and 102, 201, 202, etc.) are for: clarifying the rules.

So here’s the truth: depending on your exposure, the skills you have from your life will take you reasonably far in Spanish 101, but they will not take you all the way to an A. You must study and learn the forms. Why? Because in this class we are focused on accuracy and un español educacdo y elevado (that is the use of Spanish in a well-mannered and elevated way as befitting a college graduate).

Things to watch out for:

  1. Accent Marks: I don’t stress (pardon the pun) these too much with my in person classes, but for heritage speakers and for all online students, they matter a lot.
  2. Correct Grammar: I recently corrected a heritage speaker’s grammar and she said, “Oh, that’s what my grandma always tells me.” Right. In this class, we are learning elevated speech, not really street-Spanish (I do try to tell you guys how I would say things in real life scenarios but graduating college and looking for jobs ARE real life scenarios and you need to learn Spanish that works in those situations.) This means read the grammar sections and then practice. Yes, I know sometimes it won’t be how you (or your dad, or your abuelita, etc.) would say it but we have to learn things correctly to understand when (and how!) we make exceptions.
  3. Practice Opportunities: Especially for heritage speakers, use activities to practice writing and reading Spanish. You will get so much out of these. I promise. One easy trick is to start turning the subtitles on your movies in Spanish, watching the accent marks and the grammar will be very helpful.

Finally, a personal story. My mother’s side of the family is German and Polish. When I took my first German class, I was surprised how difficult the grammar was even though I could understand almost everything the teacher said. When it just got harder, I was hurt and confused because it felt like I was actually disconnected from an important part of my family’s heritage. Now that I have worked, very, very hard, I understand German and that heritage and its history much more than I did before. It wasn’t easy but the effort itself is so valuable.

And with that, buena suerte queridos.

Dra Reynolds

Spanish – The ‘Easy’ Language?

I remember so many times in high school and college when friends would tell me they were “just” going to take Spanish since it was the “easy” language. I bet you’ve heard that at some point too, right?

Now that I’m a Spanish professor, people have gotten a tad more polite. They may not call Spanish easy, but I have been asked multiple times how to learn Spanish quickly… Yeah, about that…

Both of these questions or inquiries stem from a similar idea that learning Spanish will be an easy or quick process. It’s an odd dynamic because I don’t know that anyone thinks German, French, Arabic or Mandarin will be “easy”, but Spanish somehow has this false reputation. In my blog today, I want to take a second to think about where this idea of Spanish being the easy language comes from (and just a warning but this gets deep quick).

Spanish – Su elegancia fundamental (Spanish and its Fundamental Elegance)

Some reasons Spanish is (wrongly!) thought of as “the easy language” include:

1.The ubiquity of Spanish in the United States today: Spanish is everywhere in the United States today, which is a truly beautiful thing. However, just because a lot of people speak it, doesn’t mean it’s easy! Case in point there are easily twice as many speakers of Mandarin Chinese than there are of Spanish, and no one would say Mandarin is easy!

2. “Easy” translations: Spanish has a lot of words that line up very well with their English equivalents. (Yo = I, Casa = house, Computadora = computer, etc.) Especially in the first year or two of Spanish, this can lead us to thinking we really only need to learn the language word-for-word. To a small extent that is true, but it stops working somewhere in Intermediate Spanish. Technically, Spanish sentence structure is pretty different from English, it’s a lot more flexible and sentences tend to be longer. It’s better, in the long run, to treat Spanish as a foreign language and spend time really working (and thinking!) in Spanish.

3. The traditional exclusion of Spanish as a language of science, art, and higher learning: This is where it gets a little deep, and frankly, pretty sad. For a long time in “the academy” (universities and other areas of higher learning), intellectual life took place in Latin, Greek, French, English, and German. As universities and academic departments shifted over the 19th and 20th centuries, language learning lost out to more practical considerations. I mean sure we still recommend Latin for aspiring doctors and scientists, or French and German for the aspirant philosopher but learning a language for the love of it and for the doors of thinking that it opens? Well… we just don’t do that as much anymore. (Sadly.)

The interesting thing is that just as the other languages began to decline, Spanish blossomed! The flourishing of Spanish is great for so many reasons, but it also obscures the fact that few people sought out Spanish as a language of erudition and learning. Instead, it was a pragmatic means to an end – a way to talk with clients or patients, with family members or employees, for finding a job, etc. That’s not to say that these are “bad” reasons, they’re great actually. But reasons like this may blind us a little bit to the philosophy, elegance, and complexity of the language itself.

Spanish is the language of Borges, Cervantes, Mistral, Castellanos, Neruda, Picasso, Guayasamín, Cisneros, and many other famous writers and artists. Learning it will open doors and broaden your world to beauty and knowledge… it’s far more than a useful tool for ordering tacos… (although it does come in pretty handy there too.)

One more secret….

There are no “easy” languages.

I’ve seriously studied four languages in my lifetime: Spanish (20+ years), German (7ish years), Brazilian Portuguese (6 years), and Quechua (1ish year). And NONE of these languages were easy. Sure there are some things that are easier than others (Portuguese for example only has four real verb forms rather than the 6-7 we have in Spanish (including the vos.)). But that being said, there are also no real “secrets”, and shortcuts and hacks can help, but they can only take you so far.

In the end, studying any foreign language takes time and consistent effort. Think of it as training for a marathon: you do a little bit more every day but in a measured and planned way and in the end you become capable of doing something extraordinary. On the other hand, if I decide to run a marathon then go to train once or twice and think that will be enough to prepare me for a major race… well it’s not going to be pretty!

The point, here, is that our expectations matter a lot whether talking about marathons or language learning. If you go into this experience thinking it will be a challenge but one that can be met with hard work, curiosity and a sense of humor, then you will find success and make so much progress on your journey. If you think it is easy, then when you meet adversity or your first real (or metaphorical) test, then there can be quite a shock.

I use a lot of metaphors for explaining language learning: for some people it is like a physical skill, requiring practice and consistency. For others, it’s a set of increasingly complicated math problems. For me, the most important thing – the thing that kept me coming back through AP Spanish, good and bad teachers and so many other challenges along the way – was the beautiful doors it opened for me, the friendships, the novels, the places it quite literally took me (Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and beyond).

If you’re reading this and getting ready to start (or to re-start) your Spanish studies. Good luck to you! I hope this journey is an elegant and inspiring. Just don’t expect it to be easy. The good stuff never is.

Keeping up language skills over a break?

How to keep up language skills over a break? 

Congratulations for finishing your semester! Whether this is your first or seventh semester, completing this course of study always requires effort and consistency. But what about the off season? 

Language learning, just like any physical skill, withers away without practice. If you’ve done great (or not-so-great) this semester what you do in the next few weeks matters! 

Can’t take one more minute of Spanish? That’s ok! There are a lot of passive “hacks”. Try turning your social media into Spanish for a day or putting subtitleson Netflix or Hulu in Spanish. You don’t even have to be actively reading these things and they will start getting into your head. 

Want more of a (fun!) challenge? 

Netflixeando: The following shows and movies are in Spanish and are super fun and worth it.

  • La casa de papel (Money Heist): A fun heist series from Spain. If you liked the Oceans 11 films this is for you.
  • La casa de flores (House of Flowers):Super quirky and stylized series from Mexico. If you liked Desperate Housewives this is for you.
  • El ministerio del tiempo (The Ministry of Time), Chicas del cable (Cable Girls): I don’t know these well but they’re highly recommended and good for folks who like a dash of history and drama 


  • News in Slow Spanish: Great podcast and they used to include a brief grammar tutorial too. 
  • Radio Ambulante: NPR’s Spanish Language podcast, if you listen online they have scripts to follow along reading. 
  • SO, so many more. If you find a good one, pass it along! 


My favorite tip is to read my favorite books in Spanish. If you already know the story, you can get lost in a fun book so easily. Other favorite lower level novels are:

  1. Los cuentos de Eva Luna (Allende) 
  2. Balún Canán (Castellanos) 
  3. El llano en llanas (Rulfo) 
  4. La crónica de una muerte anunciada (García Márquez) 

Speaking: is my favorite websites. You can either pay teachers to chat with your OR trade language practice (in tandem conversations) with people from around the world. Just pick your country and make a new friend!

“Hacking” Language Learning, part 1

In a conversation with family over the holidays, I was informed (mansplained?) how tourists really only need a few sentences in any language to survive international travel. Ooph.

As a cultural studies scholar and language educator, the sentiment communicated by my relative stings on so many levels. It reeks of linguistic arrogance and privilege. Native English speakers benefit significantly from  the fact that English is the most often studied second language. The benefits of this phenomenon include being able to travel abroad without studying another language for more than a few hours (minutes?). This privilege also passes the responsibility for communication almost entirely to the host country and its tourism industry. Finally, while certainly unacknowledged, this asserted privilege also limits any real inter- or cross-cultural understanding to that which could be visually observed without the linguistic skills for asking questions beyond English.

To explain that last idea, I like to think about when you were a kid and you could color with those mini Crayola packs you got at a restaurant. In that context, 4 to 6 colors were fine: you could play around with a few colors and draw the very basics, pass a few minutes. However, at home or school, if you found yourself with a whole bouquet of colors suddenly your pictures could be so much more detailed and interesting. You could draw your family’s car, your mother’s dress, a cerulean sky and even skin colors.

It’s very much the same with languages. Sure 4-5 sentences may be enough to navigate from your hotel to a tourist destination but is that a satisfying inter- or cross-cultural experience? My answer is a definite no. 

My point is that cultural and linguistic study is about so much more than predictable and transactional exchanges. It’s about understanding more than a quick Wikipedia page or tour guide. It’s about being able to chat with taxi drivers, store clerks, and even college professors! It’s about listening into and beyond the said, the written, the expressed… it’s about silences and vocabulary and learning about the colors that exist only in the local language. It’s about the very many words and ideas that just don’t quite translate.   

So getting back to my relative’s misguided sentiment. We are in a moment that has computed language learning to a huge extent. We’ve made it addicting, fun, and often game-ified. While there are great criticisms of these approaches, I’m not wholly resistant to this and often recommend certain Apps to my Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese language students. My top apps are

  1. Babbel – I love Babbel and use it myself to freshen up my language skills (I just signed up for their German course to prepare for my spring Conversation course). This is a great App for adult language learners because you can easily do the games for growing your vocabulary or also delve more deeply into a language’s structure: its grammar, accents, colloquialisms, and beyond. I don’t love that there is a cost but really for what it’s offering, I think the <10$ a month plans are all worth it! 
  2. Memrise – I use Memrise for my language students all the time. I set up tutoring lists for my clients and also integrated it to my Spanish 101 courses this fall. I love how communal it is, how it approaches different words from different angles, and how it allows individual students to add Memes to help their memorization.
  3. Duolingo – Duolingo is definitely winning the app game these days. Its free services and its ability to jump levels really helps. I don’t love that it doesn’t help learn grammar so that adult learners really are left on their own to figure out why certain words or structures act the way they do. But its free and social interface still make it worth it to me. 

These Apps help us “hack” language learning but they really don’t take the place to quiet study especially in the context of classrooms that focus on the language learner and her unique goals and needs! 

Peer Editing and… Oreos?


Tomorrow morning I’ll be teaching my Latin American Literature I course and we will be doing a “Taller de Investigación” (Research Workshop). This day is always super hands on and involves a lot of training so that students can become meaningful support for each other in the research and writing process.

Particularly for students working in a second (or third!) language, the Taller is such a huge and important day. Language classes at the earlier levels rarely talk about research even as we as educators are constantly reorienting our pedagogy. In my current job, I have a lot of Education oriented students so I will try to discuss some of my pedagogy but even that isn’t really treated as active research. Normally language programs “catch up” a bit somewhere in the 300 level with content-focused courses that work in the target language and get students working on appropriate college-level materials in the TL. 

Anyway, I love my Taller day. I organize this by having the students send me  work in advance. This time I’ve requested thesis statements and either a page of writing (the Introductory Paragraph) or an extensive 2-page outline.  With this material I will sort them into partners (and one 3-person group) usually based on the thematic content of their final papers.

In class we will be working through a series of exercises geared at getting the students thinking critically about each other’s work and also at training them to edit their own work while assisting their colleagues. 

So why the oreos? So glad you asked. 

Constructive criticism tends to follow a predictable pattern of positive observation, suggestion, and a final positive observation. I model this for the students while giving everyone Oreo cookies which serve as both helpful sugar boost AND a nice visual metaphor for our project. In the past this has also helped keep a pretty busy and sometimes stressful day lighter and more fun. 

We’ll see how it goes!