Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL)

Dr. Damián Vergara Wilson

Program Coordinator
Ortega Hall 417

All UNM students who choose Spanish to fulfill their language requirement are required to take a Spanish Placement Evaluation for placement at the appropriate level. Students should take the Placement Evaluation before signing up for a Spanish course.

For questions regarding the SHL program, please contact the Program Coordinator, Professor Damián Vergara Wilson: or stop in with any questions you might have, we are located in room 235 of Ortega Hall.

Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL) Learners

The field of teaching Spanish as a heritage language is growing in the United States. Many Spanish departments, especially in the Southwest, currently have programs to accommodate SHL students. Accordingly, there are many different descriptions used to designate SHL students. In the Sabine Ulibarrí Spanish as a Heritage Language (SUSHL) Program, we adopt a very inclusive definition in order to recognize the linguistic diversity found among our students. In fact, we distinguish ourselves by serving beginning-level students.

SHL learners are ones who have a cultural connection to the Spanish language. The connection to the language may come through community, family, or cultural heritage. Not all SHL learners are proficient in their heritage language. It is common to find students placed in the beginning levels that understand very little, or no, spoken Spanish. However, their cultural connection serves as a motivating factor in the classroom. Likewise, it is common for students placed in the upper levels to be fully bilingual. Despite this contrast, the majority of students are somewhere in the middle; they have been exposed to Spanish while growing up and are in the process of polishing skills that they already possess.

It is important to state that one of our primary goals is to help our students develop an appreciation of their heritage language. The Spanish that they bring with them is promoted as a valuable resource. The Spanish of their communities is honored as a venerable variety of the language. We go so far as to propose that the Spanish that has been preserved in New Mexico should be considered a national treasure for its uniqueness and its perseverance.

If you have questions about whether you are a heritage learner of Spanish, please contact the program Coordinator, Damián Vergara Wilson, Ph.D.:

All students enrolling in this program for the first time must take the Spanish Placement Evaluation. Students should take the evaluation before signing up for a Spanish course.

Why is there a need for a separate language track for heritage learners?

In the Sabine Ulibarrí Spanish as a Heritage Language Program, we recognize that the cultural connection to the language serves as a powerful motivating factor. Because of this, we design classes from the point of view that language learning must take place in a context in which the students' culture is honored and explored. We view the students as cultural resources who must look to their own communities for inspiration and for learning opportunities. For many students, the simple act of being in a class in which the other students share many of the same linguistic histories and cultural practices is a transformational experience.

We are dedicated to conducting research on Heritage Learners of Spanish in order to tailor our teaching to their needs. In a recent project, we have found that SHL students have a variety of motivations for studying Spanish that make them unique. Two of the most important reasons for studying Spanish among the beginning-level students were to be more broadly educated and to pursue Spanish because they believe that, despite being beginners, it is part of their identity. Many beginning-level students expressed a wish to pass the language along to their children. This desire to transmit the language highlights their dedication to becoming more proficient in Spanish. On the other hand, more proficient students primarily wished to improve their skills in order to communicate more effectively with friends, family, and community. These more proficient students, like their beginning-level peers, also saw Spanish as an important part of their identity.

What are the differences and similarities between the Spanish as a Heritage Language (SHL) Program and the Spanish as a Second Language (SSL) Program?

Both programs are designed to prepare students of Spanish for upper division courses by providing learners with the opportunity to develop speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. Each program has four levels that are similar to one another as far as materials and concepts covered; one program is not faster, or more advanced than the other. Neither program is inherently superior to the other. They simply cater to the educational needs of different types of learners.

The main difference is found in the approach.

In SHL classes, students come together to learn about a language to which they have a cultural connection. Often, they are able to share experiences, cultural background, and linguistic knowledge with one another.

In SSL classes, students come together to learn about a language to which they might not have a cultural connection. These students share in the experience of learning about cultures different from their own and in learning its language.