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Why Spanish is Not a Foreign Language

Faculty Expert: Leonardo García-Pabón is head of the UO Romance Languages Department and was Director of Latin American Studies from 1999 to 2003. He has been on the UO faculty since 1990. 

Q: In ten years, at least 25 percent of high school graduates in Oregon will be from Hispanic families -- how will the UO attract and serve these students?

A: This projection is not a surprise for us. The number of students coming from Hispanic families has been growing steadily at the UO. But while it has become a common situation for Spanish teachers of third and fourth-year courses to have students who speak the language with near-native fluency, it is also very common to realize that these students, who usually come from Hispanic families, do not have the writing and reading skills to be expected from such good speakers.

This particular condition reflects the complex and changing scenario of the student population at the UO created by the growing number of students coming from Hispanic families. In fact, Hispanic students' applications to the UO for next year have increased by more than 30 percent!

This change in demographics reflects the linguistic reality of the 21st century -- the growth of bilingual and multilingual societies. For the UO, this change implies a two-fold challenge: On the one hand, how to accommodate a growing number of students who come from a Hispanic culture background; on the other, how to promote in all students a sensibility and appreciation of language and cultural diversity.

The expected increase of students of Hispanic origin also points to a social reality that is often not fully acknowledged: Because of the large Hispanic population in the U.S. (44 million) and in Oregon (almost half a million), Spanish has ceased to be a foreign language. Spanish has become a de facto national language, regardless of its status as an official language or not. The fact is that wherever you go in Oregon or the U.S., you will hear Spanish widely spoken.

Read more about Oregon's demographic transformation

For the Department of Romance Languages, this means we must now consider how to provide instruction in Spanish to not only English-speaking students, but to students who come with a variety of levels of Spanish skills as well as a complex relationship to their own cultural heritage.

Some students from Spanish speaking homes speak Spanish pretty well, but do not have much knowledge of grammar or formal writing. Others understand the language but their speaking abilities are very limited. And there are always some who are monolingual, mainly English-speakers, who have very limited Spanish skills even though that is the language of their families.

In Romance Languages, we are creating a set of courses oriented to these students, although not exclusively for them. These new courses will be open to any student interested in Spanish and issues of bilingualism and biculturalism.

Because Spanish "heritage" speakers come with many different levels of language skills, they are not easy to place with the traditional tools we use for non-Spanish speakers. We are therefore starting by preparing our instructors to assess the language skills of these students. Once instructors are trained, we will begin to offer instruction related to being an individual of Hispanic cultural heritage living in a different cultural environment.

We are creating courses that address issues of bilingualism and biculturalism all over the Hispanic world, with the U.S. representing a particular case. Bilingualism and biculturalism are phenomena that happen in many countries of the Hispanic world, such as Bolivia (Quechua and Spanish) and Spain (Basque and Spanish).

At the UO, there has been an exceptional social response to the bilingual/ bicultural trend, with students showing a strong interest in learning Spanish. The demand for Spanish at the UO is overwhelming, and the Department of Romance Languages has grown over the years to accommodate students' interest. We have 60 teachers of Spanish, approximately 700 majors and minors, and over 6,800 students taking Spanish courses every year. As a consequence, we are one of the largest departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.

There is no doubt that students realize that the knowledge of Spanish and of the cultures of the Hispanic world are crucial to their professional development -- as well as to their daily life -- in an America that is more and more bilingual. They may even sense that Spanish and Hispanic cultures are part of their own cultural identity and therefore they feel the need to access this linguistic and cultural universe.

Our efforts to address the new wave of students of Hispanic origins -- as well as the permanent increase of students interested in the Spanish language and cultures -- have to be part of a general strategy at the university level. The UO has to present itself as an educational space that embraces and promotes bilingualism and biculturalism. Study abroad programs have to be developed to allow heritage students (not only from Hispanic origins) to discover and learn about their cultural roots.

For the UO, this change in demographics is an opportunity to enhance its participation in the education of global citizens interacting in a world of bilingual and multilingual people, and belonging to bicultural and multicultural societies.

- Leonardo García-Pabón, Professor of Spanish, Head of Romance Languages Dept.

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