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June 23, 2017

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Hispanic students often benefit culturally from enrolling in Spanish-language courses in college

There comes a uniquely emotional moment for American Hispanics who register for a freshman year of college: Is it a good idea to sign up for the formal study of Spanish?

According to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Hispanics say Spanish fluency is not necessary to claim Hispanic heritage, but 95 percent also said it is important for future generations to speak the language of their parents and grandparents. This double-bind can create tension and discomfort when English-dominant Hispanics decide to walk into a Spanish classroom.

I know this problem firsthand. Like many Hispanic students in Nevada who grew up in a bilingual household, I always thought I spoke Spanish just fine by the time I got to college. That’s why I had taken French in high school and majored in English. It wasn’t until I tried having a conversation about politics with a Mexican native speaker that I realized how much more I needed to learn.

Embarrassed but not undaunted, I swallowed my pride and took Spanish lessons. I am glad I made the effort, but many don’t. And I now understand why.

Sociolinguists such as professor Guadalupe Valdés of Stanford University have documented how working-class variations of Spanish are considered inferior in the college classroom, and that the “whiter,” more European varieties of Spanish are more prestigious. Puerto Ricans born in the U.S., like me, often are considered the worst speakers of Spanish.

These attitudes diminish Hispanic students’ self-esteem and can create an obstacle to learning the second-most-spoken language in the United States, which is unfairly derided by some as “the language of housemaids.”

In my 20 years as a language and literature professor at Dartmouth College, I have heard many compelling reasons for why Hispanic students choose to bite the bullet and study Spanish, and fear of seeming inauthentic is near the top of the list. I recall how one student signed up for my Spanish for Heritage Speakers course because he wanted to “correct” his Dominican Spanish. I said, “Don’t correct it, celebrate it! This course is here to help you do that.”

Hispanic college students in Nevada may even take Spanish instruction for granted because language, literature and the humanities in general are considered superfluous and a waste of time in our tech-oriented job market. Students who major in science and technology fields or go to professional school earn much higher incomes than those of us who majored in the arts and humanities.

But that does not mean studying Spanish is incompatible with other academic subjects, and learning language, whether Spanish or any other, will more likely than not enhance a student’s overall academic achievement.

I recently reached out to a former student named Glavy Cruz who wrote a senior thesis on race, political power and Caribbean dictatorships in eloquent and precise Spanish prose. Now in her last year of a doctoral program in clinical psychology in Southern California, she credited her studies in language for not only giving her the ability to communicate effectively with her Hispanic patients, but for providing her with the cultural depth that is crucial to her clinical work.

She wrote to me, “Still today, eight years after my Dartmouth graduation, my parents and I talk about my honors thesis. My social life is positively impacted as well. I am currently a member of the National Latino Psychological Association because Latino mental health is of high importance to me.”

For students like Glavy, studying Spanish in college was a smart career choice and a way to connect with her Hispanic heritage. Not everyone is going to write an honors thesis in Spanish or become a language professor, but if more English-speaking Hispanic students were persuaded to take Spanish, even if it is only one course, they would reap the benefits in their professional and personal lives while speaking for those who are often silenced in our society.

They also would encounter the beauty and diversity of the language, its rich history and its continued relevance today.

Israel Reyes is an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow of the Oped Project.

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