Dissertation Spotlight graphic
Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: The Heritage Language’s Influence on Second-Generation Hispanic Teens

By The Room 241 Team November 5, 2018

There is a unique interplay between English and Spanish fluency, but how does the heritage language impact second-generation Hispanic students? Camille Schuler, EdD, explored this topic in her dissertation and took it even further, examining how the heritage language influences the way in which second-generation Hispanic adolescents integrate into their community and how they see themselves.

Schuler teaches AP Literature and senior English at South Medford High School in Medford, Oregon. She earned her EdD in Instructional Leadership and her research resulted in her dissertation entitled “The Influence of the Heritage Language on the Cultural Integration of Second-Generation Hispanic Adolescents: A Phenomenological Study.” She has presented her research four times to university department heads, MAT candidates, and undergraduate education students. She has also been invited to present it this spring at Southern Oregon University for a Cesar Chavez conference on “The Power of Being Bilingual.”

A closer look at the bicultural student experience

Through extensive interviews with second-generation students, Schuler sought to shed light on often ignored elements of the bicultural student experience. She wanted to know how parents and peers influence adolescents’ perspective of their language, and how heritage language course offerings might impact integration.

In discussing her dissertation’s background and framework, Schuler notes that Hispanic children and adolescents lack many of the advantages that other American students enjoy. For example, parents with limited English skills find it overwhelming to navigate school correspondence or to help their children with homework. Often, these parents have completed fewer years of academic instruction. Nevertheless, they hold high hopes for their children’s academic futures — aspirations that may go unrealized due to circumstances beyond their control.

Many Hispanic students find themselves navigating a complex path between multiple cultures. While they are strongly encouraged by family members to retain their heritage, they also feel compelled to adopt the cultural norms of their academic communities. Cultural integration may occasionally occur organically but, more often, it is aided by schools and other institutions. Thus, students’ integration and academic success may be largely dependent on efforts (or lack thereof) at their schools and within their communities. Ideally, students will feel capable of not only embracing their heritage culture but also of fitting into the broader community.

Methodology and limitations

To gain a better sense of the unique factors that shape the academic experience for bicultural students, Schuler conducted in-depth interviews with Spanish-speaking participants between the ages of 15 and 19. She felt that older participants would provide more extensive feedback, having had several years to develop bilingual skills. Additionally, adolescent students could achieve the level of self-reflection needed to, as Schuler puts it, “make this study on acculturation valid and valuable.”

Schuler’s study was conducted from a phenomenological perspective; while the scope of the study was limited to just a few students, she operated from the viewpoint that considerable knowledge can be gained from a small group of participants, especially if the researcher is able to fully invest in a multi-layered interview process. The goal: to produce rich answers that fully convey the intricacies of the bicultural and bilingual student experience.

Limited English proficiency proved a considerable concern when initially conceptualizing this study. Schuler addressed this by allowing students to work with Latino outreach coordinators during the interview process. Additionally, she carefully worded questions to ensure accessibility. Because she suspected that some concepts could best be conveyed in the subjects’ native language, she recorded interviews with the intention of playing them back alongside a Spanish-speaking colleague, if necessary.

The conceptual framework for Schuler’s study was largely provided through Dr. John Berry’s acculturation study, which posits that “heritage individuals living in host cultures find that they are constantly adjusting to the spoken and unspoken norms that govern the social, academic, and familial aspects of their experiences.”

Key findings

Through interviews with second-generation students and assessments of their participation in various academic programs, Schuler concludes that those with negative experiences regarding their heritage language tended to suffer marginalization. Meanwhile, those with positive language-based experiences typically found it easier to navigate multiple cultures. This was particularly true of those granted the opportunity to use their heritage language to help others. Many respondents actually regarded their bilingual status as an advantage.

After summarizing the main findings, Schuler’s dissertation provides descriptions of each student’s responses to carefully selected questions. Answers vary considerably in some respects, but many students share the familiar concern of growing detached from their families as they improve their English fluency. This causes considerable distress for many who explained that they struggle to fit in both at school and within the Hispanic community. One respondent said, “I was in my own little world because no one really understood me…I couldn’t feel accepted from either side.”

Many students expressed concerns about their fluency not only in English but also in their heritage language. Several explained that, over time, they’ve developed accents that differ considerably from those of their family members. Furthermore, many said they have struggled to read or write in their heritage language, often only gaining English literacy. One respondent commented on this by saying, “If my language is this hard, and if the other students in my class are so much more fluent, am I really a heritage speaker, or am I more American than I thought?”

Despite suffering negative experiences while young, all 10 respondents admitted that they now see the usefulness of their language skills — and even regret their relatively poor understanding of their heritage language. Additionally, several cited Spanglish as granting them a greater sense of belonging. One student said they find great satisfaction in relating “to someone else who I know is from both cultures.”

Ultimately, Schuler discovered that immersion in English schools improves students’ fluency in English but negatively impacts their heritage fluency. This could leave their bilingual skills in danger, as many feel reluctant to speak their heritage language at home for fear of criticism. In this way, parents play a critical role in second-generation students’ cultural integration. Those who feel validated in learning a second language actually are more likely to feel positive about preserving their heritage.

Having interacted extensively with second-generation teens, Schuler believes strongly that school programs can help those who feel alienated from multiple cultures. By granting students a greater sense of purpose and confidence in their bilingual skills, heritage Spanish and other language programs can impart a sense of belonging on those who desperately want to feel at home.

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