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Speaking the Same Language

AU’s Heritage Spanish Program offers a place for Latinx students who grew up speaking Spanish to hone their skills while building community with fellow Eagles.

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For Nicholas Caraballo, SPA/BA ’23, MPA ’24, AU’s Heritage Spanish Program is more than a class—it’s a community.

The former president of the AU League of United Latin American Citizens grew up in Ohio speaking primarily English. He enrolled in Heritage Spanish I, offered by AU’s Department of World Languages and Cultures, in 2021 to learn to communicate more comfortably with his dad’s side of the family in Puerto Rico.

“It was a space to be ourselves and talk about shared experiences we’ve had,” Caraballo said of the program. “Latinos are not a monolith—that’s something we started with up front—but there are some shared experiences, especially language, that we all related to. It made me feel like I’m not alone.”

According to a September 2023 report from the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of US Latinos are able to carry on a conversation in Spanish “pretty well or very well.” However, 54 percent of non-Spanish-speaking Hispanics—including nearly six in 10 people with some college experience—have been shamed by others in their community for not speaking the language. 

Now in its 10th year, AU’s Heritage Spanish Program—one of only a few offerings of its kind at universities across the US—has helped 255 undergraduates develop multilingual and multicultural literacy through the use of heritage language, a nondominant tongue that’s often spoken at home.

While students who have grown up speaking both Spanish and English frequently have linguistic, cognitive, and cultural advantages over monolingual speakers of either language, the group is often left in limbo—too advanced for introductory language courses but also not fluent. A heritage speaker, for example, might be able to converse Spanish but not write in it. 

“[These speakers] are never really placed in courses where they are the protagonist of the curriculum,” said Lilian Baeza-Mendoza, program director. “Instead of placing them in traditional courses, we created a series of core courses tailored to them, their needs, and their talents.” 

Baeza-Mendoza described the program, which strives to strengthen formal grammar and vocabulary, reading, and writing and improve speaking, as a public service to Eagles, who get to learn from and with one another. Any student who identifies as a heritage speaker can take courses to meet their foreign language requirements or to brush up on their skills for academic and professional use. In fall 2023 and spring 2024, 42 students have participated in the program.

“If after their studies, they decide they would like to do a minor in Spanish or a translation certificate or a double major, that’s fantastic, but that’s not what we’re after,” Baeza-Mendoza said. “Any student, no matter their degree, is welcome in the program.”

Caraballo, who is fluent in Spanish, said the heritage courses marked the first time he’d been taught by a native speaker. That instruction boosted both the CLEG major’s competency and his confidence in reading, writing, and speaking in Spanish.

The courses also helped him get to know his family on a deeper level. In his final course, Writing Across Our Cultures, Caraballo, who’s currently pursuing a master’s in public administration, interviewed his grandmother about what she’d like her grandchildren to know about her life.

“I learned more about my family through that experience than I would have otherwise,” he said. “Those aren’t really questions you sit down and have a conversation naturally [about]. I have that recording somewhere, and it’s going to be a beautiful memory.”

For Alondra Aguilar, CAS-SOC/BA ’26, who grew up in Mexico and attended high school in Texas, AU’s Heritage Spanish courses were beneficial for a different reason.

“Coming from Mexico to Washington, DC, was a drastic change,” said Aguilar, who speaks Spanish as her first language. “At first, I did struggle a lot being at AU because I didn’t see a lot of people that look like me. Having the heritage classes did help me feel like I found my community.”

Aguilar moved to the United States as a teenager and taught herself English by watching YouTube videos from American vloggers documenting the high school experience. But while she was learning a new language in Texas, she missed out on Spanish writing and rhetoric lessons in Mexico.

She enrolled in the Heritage Spanish Program during her first semester to bolster those skills and was delighted to discovered a welcoming classroom environment where she could be herself.

“I was thinking I did not feel like I belong here,” Aguilar said. “The heritage courses gave me that home and community.”

Learn more about the heritage Spanish program by emailing