FSU Spanish Heritage Track - Interview with Dr. Anel Brandl by Maria Villalobos

 

Dr. Anel Brandl, Teaching Professor of Spanish and Linguistics and the Assistant Director of the Spanish Basic Language program, has recently developed a track within the Spanish program specially designed for heritage speakers. The track debuted this semester and currently has three sections. Dr. Brandl sat down with us to talk to us about the new track in detail.
 

Modern Languages & Linguistics (MLL): Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics?

Anel Brandl (AB): I am Anel Brandl and I’m a Teaching Professor of Spanish and Linguistics here in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. I teach Spanish courses at the 2000 and 3000 level and some upper level courses in Spanish Linguistics. Besides my role as Teaching Professor, I am also the Assistant Director of the Spanish Basic Language program and the adviser of the Spanish Honor Society chapter Alpha Delta.  For the past 2 years, I’ve been working on establishing a track for bilingual Spanish heritage speakers.

 

MLL: What is a heritage bilingual?

AB: The most accepted definition is from Dr. Guadalupe Valdés. She says that heritage speakers are bilinguals who were raised in homes where a language, other than the dominant language of the broader community, was spoken. More recently, Dr. Polinsky defined a heritage speaker as someone who has two parallel linguistic systems where usually one of the systems tends to be more attenuated than the other, this usually being the minority language not spoken by the community. This doesn’t mean, however, that bilingual speakers are not proficient in the minority language. Their abilities in the language vary significantly depending on their language dominance, use, and proficiency in Spanish. Some bilinguals are highly proficient, while others only have basic speaking and listening skills. It is a really diverse population, but the linguistic system is there, Spanish is there.

 

MLL: What inspired you to create a track uniquely designed for Spanish heritage speakers?

AB: In the past three years or so, we started noticing that a lot of students had issues being placed in our Spanish Basic Language courses because of their bilingualism since these courses are closed to this student population. The Spanish program did offer a course for heritage speakers before the track was in place, but the course was an advanced 3000 level, and many of our bilingual students didn’t have the proficiency level necessary to be successful in this advanced course. Placing low proficiency bilinguals in advanced courses under the assumption that, as bilinguals, they know how to speak Spanish, seemed like a penalization to me. That’s how the idea to have a track for Spanish heritage bilinguals began. I met and interviewed so many of these heritage bilinguals over the years trying to find the right class for them. From my interviews, it was clear that these bilingual speakers were highly interested in maintaining their heritage language, and that they were very aware of their value as bilinguals. We, as a program, needed to adapt to that reality and create a place for these students to continue developing their heritage language.

 

MLL: How was the track created?

AB: After doing countless research on Spanish heritage language teaching, I reached out to Dr. Kim Potowski, Director of the Spanish Bilingual Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is an expert on heritage language education in the United States. I contacted her about my concerns regarding placing heritage speakers properly in courses designed for them, and she was absolutely wonderful. She sent me a lot of support, and excellent materials and commented that we are doing a great service to our Latinx population on campus, one that can make important contributions to recruitment, retention, overall academic success, and graduation rates. Dr. Potowski advised me to first identify the students’ abilities and needs, which is something I was already working on, such as understanding who this population was. She then suggested taking a look at their goals, from which we realized that what they really needed is literacy courses in Spanish. Then, I made the proposal to the entire Spanish faculty to create this track and it was approved!

For the creation of the track and its courses specifically, I consulted different programs around the nation such as the one at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Arizona and close to us, the Spanish Heritage program at the University of Florida directed by Dr. Diego Pascual y Cabo. Both, him and Dr. Potowski, have been wonderful advisers and have guided me through the process. I also reached out to Dr. Maria Luisa Parra from the University of Harvard, who feels strongly about supporting these population of heritage speakers as well as the others.

All my colleagues from the Spanish Program have been very supportive of the track; in particular, Dr. Carolina Gonzalez, Dr. Antje Muntendam and Dr. Delia Poey. The previous Chair of the Department, Dr. Mark Pietralunga, and the current Chair, Dr. Reinier Leushuis, are both very supportive and interested in the project as well.

 

MLL: What classes are offered within the track? And are you planning to create more in the future?

AB: We offer SPN 2340, Basic Spanish for Bilinguals/Heritage Learners and SPN 3350, Spanish for Heritage Speakers. The first course leans towards literacy while the second is geared towards writing and reading within an academic context. This is the first semester of the track and we are very excited about it. It’s going fantastic and the students feel it is a much-needed track. We are assessing course objectives, and students’ performance to decide whether we need additional lower or upper level courses in the future.

 

MLL: How do you determine if this track is suited for a student?

AB: Since we only have three sections, Dr. Delia Poey, who teaches SPN 3350, and I conduct interviews with each of the students and then determine their level. One of the projects for the coming year is to create a placement test that is based on linguistic performance. It will automatically determine the level of the student. I have received a lot of guidance from Dr. Pascual y Cabo through the process of creating this placement test as well. However, I would like to continue with the interviews because I get so much data this way, which is highly valuable to me. Thanks to the interview process, I knew all my students by the time the course started. They know about the project and how important it is for both the department and the university, and they have found it very exciting.

 

MLL: Why is this track important for the university?

AB: We need to erase the negative assumptions surrounding bilinguals studying their heritage language to help them understand how valuable as bilinguals they are in today’s job market. We need a place for these students to thrive as bilinguals and to continue to develop their language skills. It is so valuable today to be a proficient bilingual and that’s what we want to provide to the students. With almost 25% of undergraduate students at Florida State University being Hispanic, we just had to have a place for these students. It’s all about connecting them with their heritage, including their heritage language.