The Changing Landscape of Spanish Language Curricula: Designing Higher Education Programs for Diverse Students
reviewed by Michael Guerrero & Maria Guerrero - September 12, 2018
Title: The Changing Landscape of Spanish Language Curricula: Designing Higher Education Programs for Diverse Students
Author(s): Alan V. Brown & Gregory L. Thompson
Publisher: Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC
ISBN: 1626165742, Pages: 292, Year: 2018
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This is a must-read text for those committed to advancing the development of Spanish in the United States. Brown and Thompson do an excellent job of identifying and unpacking the debilitating mindsets and practices that have undermined the development and advancement of the Spanish language in the U.S., highlighting the roles of institutions of higher education. The authors also zero in on how Spanish language programs at the tertiary level have been unable to create the kind of curricula needed to serve the long-ignored and growing population of heritage language learners. The two authors organize their text around macro programmatic issues (p. 12) and draw on three major sources of information: a review of select literature, a national survey they designed and conducted, and personal narrative accounts of their respective experiences at their own institutions.
These two reviewers share the authors desire for Spanish instruction in the twenty-first century to flourish (p. 42). As the authors point out, there is very little explicit language policy or planning in place (or on the horizon) that would create greater PK-16 Spanish language acquisition and learning opportunities for native speakers of Spanish, heritage language learners, or native English speakers interested in becoming adult Spanish-English bilinguals. Brown and Thompson make clear that, in the reviewers words, the U.S. is (and has been since 1776) essentially squandering one of its greatest natural linguistic resources. The reviewers were pleased to see the two authors make some reference to K-12 bilingual education programming, with special reference to one-way and two-way immersion programs. Clearly, the development of Spanish-English bilingualism can and must begin as early as pre-kindergarten and continue at least through undergraduate studies if the Spanish language has any chance of flourishing in this country.
The ten chapters of the book highlight a series of challenges and opportunities that manifest themselves within Spanish language programs at colleges and universities across the country. The honesty with which Brown and Thompson address difficult issues resonated fully with the experiences of these two reviewers. For instance, linked to the notion of programmatic bifurcation (p. 38), the authors are explicit about exposing the archaic and debilitating presence of privilege and status that some faculty have come to enjoy at the expense of the quality of the program. The authors are also forthcoming about administrators inclinations to commodify the Spanish language. The challenge of creating empirically supported curricula that can serve such a diversity of learners (i.e., native Spanish speakers, heritage language speakers, and native English speakers) with the goal of moving them towards World Readiness Standards (p. 54) is also at the core of this text. The authors are especially clear about how critical Spanish language program placement policies, procedures, and assessment tools are for quality programming, and how too many programs still struggle with these fundamental programmatic dimensions. Special attention is also given to leveraging the integration of service learning opportunities (i.e., Chapter Four), study abroad experiences, and technology (i.e., Chapter Nine) to enhance the curriculum, though the authors acknowledge that doing so is a complex task.
Brown and Thompson make explicit efforts in their book to promote the idea of cross-program and cross-college partnerships as well as the notion of Spanish for Specific Purposes, which they refer to as a crucial component of twenty-first century Spanish curricula (p. 98). The authors, for example, maintain that while students majoring in business can augment their employment prospects by learning Spanish, it is important for Spanish language programming to transcend and resist the commodification of the Spanish language and culture. That is, the authors speak to the idea of promoting the acquisition of Spanish as a way of enriching ones worldview, and perhaps even as a means to transform ones identity. The authors also make specific reference to the many challenges involved in the preparation of pre-service Spanish teachers (i.e., Chapter Eight), including immersion teachers. Consistent with the authors position, our experience has been that neither teacher education faculty nor Spanish department faculty have been able to create the kind of curricular space that is needed to meet the Spanish language development needs of prospective K-12 Spanish, bilingual, and dual immersion teachers.
We see this book as an excellent contribution to the variety of fields that share the goal of preparing college and university students to use Spanish in their lives and work. As such, Brown and Thompson call for more curricular and programmatic synergies and fewer curricular islands (p. 145). The content of the book will easily lend itself to generating long-overdue and very likely difficult conversations among Spanish language faculty and administrators, including faculty and administrators from other programs and colleges. The authors are very clear about promoting dialogue that can lead to action as we all come to grips with the changing landscape of learners and of Spanish language curricula. The authors are also forthcoming about challenges that might never be reconciled, such as which standard or variety of the Spanish language ought to be targeted by programs, how to measure language proficiency, and how to empirically establish Spanish language proficiency levels for various kinds of program completers.
As far as any shortcomings, we believe that a book written with the purpose at hand ought to be available in the language it seeks to advance, in this case Spanish. It is somewhat peculiar to discuss notions such as critical pedagogy, power relations, and especially agency (p. 153) in reference to Spanish in the U.S. and to do so exclusively in English, as this only serves to maintain the lesser status of Spanish. However, we understand how this is an entrenched practice among most professors concerned with related topics. Congruent with professorial agency, Spanish must be used to construct new knowledge in the context of the U.S. for a variety of reasons, but mainly to demonstrate that complex and important ideas can be conveyed through this language, and that its written use transcends advertising slogans such as Live más. From a more practical standpoint, some native Spanish-speaking professors may need to read the book in Spanish, while others with lesser proficiency in Spanish may benefit from grappling with the meaning of such an important text.
It may also be that the two theoretical frameworks that were used to lend credence and coherence to the authors ideas were anchored too firmly and narrowly to the orientations of Spanish language faculty and course design. Perhaps a more macro-level orientation from the field of language in education policy and planning or sociolinguistics would have more logically framed the issues at hand. It may have also been more appropriate to introduce the two theoretical orientations presented in the final chapter much earlier in the text. In short, perhaps a PK-16 medium of instruction theoretical orientation could have been briefly integrated into the text without compromising the authors focus on higher education. We say this because we believe the only societal strategy that can lead to transforming the Spanish language from a marketing tool into to a tool for knowledge construction, including identify formation, is the sustained access to and use of Spanish over the long term through PK-12 education. While Spanish language curricula at the tertiary level need to change, they cannot meaningfully find direction for deep change by ignoring the power and promise of PK-12 dual immersion programming, in our estimation.
As a final comment, what this book might mean for the reorganization or reinvention of college and university departments and programs is exciting to say the least. At a minimum, if the goal is the advancement of Spanish-English bilingualism in this country, Spanish language faculty must work seamlessly with PK-12 education faculty, as well as with faculty in the fields of language planning and policy, linguistics, applied linguistics, educational linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, psychometrics, and educational leadership. This position is clearly in line with the fine work of Brown and Thompson.