Groundbreaking graduate certificate program teaches heritage speakers of Spanish, social justice

Jennifer Leeman

The number of people who speak languages other than English at home is growing, and particularly the number of people who speak Spanish at home, said Jennifer Leeman, director of George Mason University’s Spanish Heritage Language Education (SHLE) graduate certificate program and professor of Spanish linguistics.  

Beginning this fall, George Mason University’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) will offer a new graduate certificate in Spanish Heritage Language Education. The 15-credit program was approved in April and can be completed fully online. The deadline for applications has been extended to Aug. 15. 

“The program’s goal is to prepare teachers and educational professionals to understand, advocate for, and teach heritage speakers of Spanish,” said Leeman. She said this is the only program of its kind in the state of Virginia, and one of only a few nationwide focused on heritage speakers.

Leeman said the certificate program is taught by well-recognized experts in the field, with three of the four required courses taught in Spanish. She will be teaching FRLN 575 Heritage Language Education in English this fall, with a focus on Spanish in the United States, but also covering languages such as Arabic, Greek, Korean and Japanese. 

Sara Ramirez

“The Heritage Language Education course showed me the many ways that heritage speakers are different than second-language learners and taught me about the ways that traditional Spanish classes promote negative ideas about heritage speakers’ dialects,” said Mason alum Sara Ramírez, who graduated in 2017 with a MA in foreign languages with a concentration in Spanish. As a result, heritage speakers can have insecurities regarding their language abilities. It is our job as educators to teach learners to reject these linguistic ideologies and promote acceptance.”

Leeman said that this program expands Mason’s view of anti-racism and social justice by focusing on language as an anti-racist issue.

“Students will learn about Spanish speakers in the U.S., how language is connected to not just culture, but to critical social justice issues. And they will learn how to meet the needs of their students by designing and implementing materials and curricula,” Leeman said.

The program has sparked interest from practicing teachers, including people in other parts of the country, Leeman said.

“We are hoping to help not just educators, but affiliated professionals, researchers, counselors, or parents to understand better who these students are and how policies and educational practices have reproduced racism and inequality in the schools,” Leeman said.

Rima Elabdali

Leeman is confident that the program’s flexibility will serve as an incentive for nondegree students who want to earn a certificate, or for those students who want to pursue a master’s degree. All the courses in the certificate also count toward a master’s in foreign language with a concentration in Spanish.

“The Heritage Language Education course sparked my interest in issues related to heritage language education and offered me the background needed to research the topic,” said Rima Elabdali, a PhD candidate in applied linguistics at Georgetown who enrolled in the Heritage Language Education class at Mason via the Washington Area Consortium. “I loved the balance between the theoretical and practical aspects in the course.

Elabdali added, “The online format was really a plus because I would not have been able to take the course on campus. And it was great to be able to revisit the class recordings when I needed to clarify certain points.”

Leeman said states don’t require expertise in heritage language education teaching in order to get licensure, but it’s something that the Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese says that all Spanish teachers should have.

“Traditional foreign language classes are designed for second-language learners, so they don’t always meet the need,” she added.