Spanish for Spanish-speakers
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
June 5, 2006
Latino students know their native language, but many never learned
grammar. Schools are offering classes to fill in the gap.
By Ana Beatriz Cholo
When Vernon Hills High School freshman Ingrid Marin walked into a
class last fall, her peers were like, "What are you doing here?"
After all, Spanish is her native language, and she speaks flawlessly.
Spanish III has not been easy for Marin, and as the end of the school
approaches, she has given up on getting an easy A--or even a B or C.
Marin is like many others who grew up speaking another language at home
their native country but never learned the basics of grammar.
As the U.S. Latino population booms, many are forgoing traditional
classes and enrolling in classes designed just for them--sometimes
"Heritage Spanish" or "Spanish for Native Speakers."
Dozens of high schools in Chicago, Round Lake, Highland Park, Glenview
Mundelein have been offering the classes for years, but more city and
schools are seeing the need to add them to the curriculum.
At the college level, the University of Illinois at Chicago has one of
largest and oldest programs in the area, and DePaul University and the
University of Chicago offer classes.
Most students take the classes for a language credit, others because
to improve their Spanish, especially if they choose to enter the
The trend gained strength in the southwestern United States in the 1970s
spread across the nation with the Latino population. Still, despite the
in the number of the classes, experts believe there are still not enough
the need--or even an awareness that they exist. The training necessary
teachers is also limited.
Heritage speakers are natural resources because of their language and
skills, yet they need specialized classes, said Kim Potowski, a
professor at UIC.
"They never studied it formally and don't know the labels for things
`conjugate this -er verb in the first person singular of the
"They actually carry out such tasks perfectly well as they speak.
foreign-language classes place a premium on this kind of formal
language terminology, which heritage speakers usually do not have,"
Some native speakers, for example, are clueless about accents. They are
that misplacing them can change the meaning of a word.
Marin, 15, started the year in Spanish I. The teacher saw how easy it
her and sent her to a more advanced class, which proved too hard. The
her peers have a hard time understanding her dilemma.
"[Other students] say, `You should know this,' [but] just because I am
that doesn't mean that I know everything," she said.
After all, grammar and writing were not things she learned around the
Even Marin's father couldn't understand why his daughter was not doing
class, until he tried helping her with homework. A Mexican native who
the U.S. as a teenager, he had a hard time with some of the verb tenses
used in everyday speech.
After watching students like Marin struggle, Vernon Hills High School
coordinator Cheryl Steffens is working to bring the specialized classes
school in fall 2007.
Students usually take a written or oral exam that determines which class
suit them best. The exam may be their first time writing or reading in
"I feel bad that they have been denied the opportunity during all of
schooling years," said Potowski, head of the native Spanish program at
When teaching Spanish to native speakers, a one-size-fits-all approach
work, linguists say. One class could have a student who came to the U.S.
teenager, another who was born here and some who grew up hearing their
grandparents speak the language. In addition, the students often hail
diverse Latin American countries that share the language but not always
same words. This bond sometimes breeds camaraderie and makes it easy for
students to argue jokingly about who speaks "correct" Spanish.
For instance, the word "cake" can be bizcocho in Puerto Rico, pastel in
torta in Spain, ponque in Colombia, cake without pronouncing the "k" in
and queque in Bolivia. Round Lake High School teacher Ken Knapp said
such a diverse class is like being in a "one-room schoolhouse."
Unlike mainstream Spanish classes, the goal for teachers is to build on
knowledge students already have, not harp on minor errors.
Cesar Jimenez gets upset when his mother corrects him.
The Cicero resident grew up speaking Spanish, but in school and with
spoke mostly English. Now he's enrolled in a native speakers class at
At the dinner table recently, Jimenez, his brother and cousin chatted in
English. His mother, who speaks only Spanish but understands English,
nearby. They tease her about her mispronunciation of English words, but
gets the brunt of the jokes.
He often makes up words.
On that night he grasped for the Spanish word that means "sticky."
"Pegasoso," he finally said.
No, it's pegajoso.
In class, teachers discover students using "Spanglish."
Instead of correcting them, Potowski encourages the idea of Spanish as a
language. Those Spanglish words could be included someday in a Spanish
dictionary, she said. But if someone writes in an academic essay, "La
liqueando" ("the roof is leaking" in informal Spanish), she would
to search for more formal alternatives.
Native speakers often are self-conscious about how they sound around
fluent speakers. They do not realize how far ahead they are.
"The first thing they will say is, `I don't know how to speak Spanish,'"
Maria Carreira, a native Cuban who teaches at California State
"They carry all this baggage. But then I will ask them, `Have you
Spanish soap opera?' They will say, `Oh yeah.' Now, imagine how long it
take for an English speaker to get to that level."
For those who grew up in the United States, one's "Latino-ness" is often
For Daniel de los Reyes of Chicago, Spanish is the language of his
people and his culture. But when it comes to the grammar, de los Reyes,
gives up in frustration.
Growing up, his grandmother spoke to him in Spanish, but English was his
dominant language. The worst part is when his cousins in Mexico tease
call him a gringo or an Americano.
"I just want it to come naturally," de los Reyes said while sitting
recently with classmates from a "Spanish for Students of Hispanic
class at UIC. "I won't even finish a sentence [in Spanish]. I will just
over to English. I am Latino and I should be able to speak Spanish."
"I don't get it."