¿Cómo se dice?

Students reclaim the language of home through new courses designed for heritage speakers of Spanish.

Sarah Pruitt '95
May 1, 2023
Students from the heritage Spanish class

A group of students sits around the Harkness table in a cozy classroom on the fifth floor of Phillips Hall, going over the previous night’s Spanish homework. They bend over their papers, reading aloud sentences using the pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo, the verb form used to express subjectivity or uncertainty in the past.

One student lets out a small cry after learning she chooses the wrong answer. “No desesperes,” Humberto Delgado Velazquez, instructor in modern languages, says in a light tone that suggests he has spoken these words more than a few times before.

The students in Delgado’s class on this day are far from the only Exeter students to despair over the Spanish subjunctive. Yet they are different from many of those language learners in a couple of important ways: having a familial or community connection to “the language to one degree or another for their entire lives, and they are taking Exeter’s first courses designed for students just like them.

This year, the Modern Languages Department offered two courses in Transition Spanish for Heritage Speakers. Held in the fall and winter terms, the courses aim to provide an environment where heritage speakers of Spanish can build on the base they have in the language and get the specific academic instruction they need. “Over the years, we’ve noticed that we have a certain population of students in our classes” in Spanish, says Fermín Pérez-Andreu, chair of the Modern Languages Department. “They may have problems with certain grammar points, or they don’t use certain structures in the way they should, but they understand a lot and can to some extent communicate and engage in conversation. It’s very difficult to make those adjustments in an environment with other students who are at a differ-ent rhythm. … We thought it would be good to create an environment in which they feel more comfortable, valued and taken care of.”

We thought it would be good to create an environment in which they feel more comfortable, valued.
Fermín Pérez-Andreu, chair of the Modern Languages Department

These aren’t the first classes at Exeter designed for heritage speakers of a language other than English. For about a decade, the Academy has offered accelerated Chinese courses for students who have some background in Mandarin Chinese. Some students who enroll in these classes were born in the United States but speak Mandarin at home; some have lived in Chinese-speaking countries; others may simply have exceptional language skills and high oral proficiency. “Students’ speaking skills are normally very high, but their reading and writing level may not be as strong,” says Instructor in Modern Languages Ning Zhou, who teaches CHI321: Advanced Chinese (Accelerated) in the winter term. Zhou says the department typically fills one or two sections of the accelerated Chinese course; it is offered in three yearlong sequences, depending on demand. “The course provides a space for students with similar academic needs,” Zhou says. “Students form good relationships with each other and build a strong community along the way.”  

By contrast, Delgado had only six students in Transition Spanish for Heritage Speakers when it launched in the fall term, but he predicts that number will grow. “The Hispanic population is rising in the United States, and we are going to be dealing with a very big number of students in similar cases,” he says.

The growing number of heritage language classes at secondary schools and universities across the country reflects the reality that the United States is increasingly becoming a bilingual country. According to a 2021 report by the global nonprofit organization Instituto Cervantes, the United States has the world’s fourth-largest Spanish-speaking population (counting only native Spanish speakers). By 2060, Instituto Cervantes estimated, 27.5% of the U.S. population will be of Hispanic origin, making it the country with the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking population.

At Exeter, Hispanic/Latino students currently make up around 8.2% of the student body, according to self-reported surveys conducted by the Admissions Office. But the number of students who fit the heritage speaker of Spanish profile is growing, Pérez-Andreu says, leading to the introduction of the course this year.

Jackie Flores, who has taught Spanish at Exeter since 1997 and oversees the Spanish language placement tests for incoming students, argued strongly for the addition of a heritage Spanish course. “I taught the 100-level course for many years, and I always found it so uncomfortable having that one Latino or Latina student who stood out, and everybody around the table either feeling intimidated or thinking, ‘Why is this student in my class? Don’t they already speak Spanish?’” She has also seen many Hispanic students skip learning Spanish altogether because they think they already know the language.

Patrick Snyder ’25 nearly became one of those students. Throughout his childhood in San Antonio, Texas, Snyder says, his mother, who is Mexican, spoke Spanish to him, but he would never speak back. When he enrolled at Exeter as a prep, he decided to take Chinese. “I wanted to challenge myself, I guess,” he recalls. Last fall, he made the switch to the new Spanish for Heritage Speakers course. “I’ve loved it,” he says. “Having that half-Latino in me, I love learning the language and getting into the culture more.”

Like Snyder, other students in the class report that their relatives spoke to them in Spanish from an early age and that they answered only “ in English. “I’ve always been able to understand what people are saying, but being able to speak and write is a whole different thing,” says Celia Valdez ’26, whose father is Chicano and whose mother is of mixed Cuban and white heritage.

One problem, Delgado says, “is that Spanish in the United States has been stigmatized in general.” A native of Mexico, he came to Exeter in 2020, after teaching Spanish and Latino Studies to undergraduates at Harvard University and Boston College. He adds: “These kids are often reluctant to learn Spanish because they have learned that Spanish is second in language, second in culture. This is the other thing you have to create: a pride for the language and their cultures, their heritages.”

I had no idea what a subjunctive verb was before I came to this course. Now ... I’ve finally been able to speak to my great-grandma, who only speaks Spanish, without needing my grandma to translate.
Celia Valdez ’26

In the new class, students are challenged by reading literature in Spanish, including difficult works by authors like Pablo Neruda. Delgado stresses that the language is in their brains, and that the class is about drawing it out. As a result, the students usually move quickly through a lesson, and he often finds himself adjusting his plans accordingly.

At the end of the two-class sequence, Delgado will assess each student’s level to decide placement for the next term. He believes they will all be placed at an advanced level, either 320: Advanced Spanish or 400: Panorama of Latin American and Spanish Readings, which will be close to satisfying their language requirement after only one year at Exeter.

Two students who took the course during the fall term advanced to the 500 level. One was Siena Saavedra Bagdonas ’26, who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was around 7 years old. “I kind of put so much focus into learning English that I shut off from Spanish for a while,” she says. “We’re all bilingual in my house, but we fall [back] on English.”

As she got older, Saavedra Bagdonas began making more of an effort to regain some of the comfort with Spanish she had lost. By the time she applied to Exeter, she spoke fluently again but had received little formal instruction beyond an elementary-level class in middle school, where she ended up serving essentially as the teacher’s assistant. Her teacher would give her reading materials on the side so she could begin to improve her Spanish literacy, which served her well in the fall Spanish for Heritage Speakers course.“The way you learn a language naturally versus the way you learn it in a classroom is just so not the same,” Saavedra Bagdonas says. “Overall, Dr. Delgado would teach the group, but if there was something he felt some of us knew more than others, he would separate us.”

This winter, she took SPA552: Fantasy and Reality in the Latin American Narrative, devouring works by Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and others. Her language requirement fulfilled, Saavedra Bagdonas is pondering taking a course in French or Japanese but also plans to enroll in other 500-level Spanish courses. “The thing for native speakers is we need practice more than anything else,” she says. “I don’t think I would have gotten [that practice] if it weren’t for the heritage Spanish class.”    

Though Max Albinson ’25 doesn’t have Hispanic heritage, he attained a high level in Spanish by attending school and playing with a local basketball team in Barcelona, where his family moved when he was around 10. When he enrolled at Exeter, he was given the choice between an intermediate class or Spanish for Heritage Speakers and chose the latter. “The classroom environment is what really did the most for me,” Albinson says. “You’re in an environment with all these kids with this diverse set of backgrounds, but you’re also bonded through a language that you all know so much about but aren’t quite there on fully understanding how to do it in an institutional manner.”

Albinson is now taking SPA503: Family, Community and Contemporary Life. “My language requirement will be fulfilled by the end of this term, and that’s all thanks to being in the heritage class.” He plans to use the increased flexibility to polish his Spanish through more classes, and to take electives like epistemology, anthropology and economics.  

The students in the Spanish for Heritage Speakers courses may have different levels of fluency and comfort, but they share a personal connection to the language and culture that sets them apart from other language learners. They also come from different backgrounds, and the classes include sharing different experiences and perspectives from the Hispanic/Latino world in the United States and beyond. “They need to understand how to deal with their own hybrid identity in this country,” Delgado says. “That is very important to me, as important as the language.”

Back on the fifth floor of Phillips Hall, the students in SPA13H muse on the practical impacts the class has had. Cristina Ortiz ’26, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, says she spoke Spanish in the house until she was 7 because her grandmother, who took care of her, didn’t speak English. “I don’t really know why, but after that age, we just stopped speaking Spanish at home, until now where I feel like we primarily speak English,” she says. Recently, however, she was on the phone with her grand-mother, and something had changed. “She’s like: 

‘Wow, you’re using words you’ve never used before. I’ve never heard you speak like this.’”

Valdez agrees. “I had no idea what a subjunctive verb was before I came to this course,” she says. “Now I’ve been speaking to my family in Spanish a lot more, and I’ve finally been able to speak to my great-grandma, who only speaks Spanish, without needing my grandma to translate. That’s been nice.”   


This story was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.