Undergraduate Students of Spanish: Motivations and Attitudes




Adelman, Emily

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Since 1995, enrollments in undergraduate Spanish courses have surpassed those of all other non-English languages combined at institutions of higher education in the United States. At the same time, a heated debate about the use of Spanish in the public sphere is taking place in state legislative bodies, departments of education, school districts, the media, and elsewhere in the country. It seems that the Spanish learned in the classroom is encouraged, while the Spanish spoken by speakers with a native or heritage connection to the language, or Spanish learned at home, is criticized. This discrepancy brings up several questions: Why do undergraduate students study Spanish? Do students in different levels of Spanish have different reasons for studying the language? Do students with different home language profiles have different reasons for studying the language? How many students in the introductory courses plan to study Spanish beyond their language requirement? Do different groups of students show different attitudes toward Spanish? Are there relationships between students' attitudes and broader ideologies regarding the Spanish language and Spanish speakers? To investigate these questions, a survey was administered to undergraduate students enrolled in every level of Spanish offered at George Mason University (GMU) during the Spring 2011 semester. The survey phase was followed up by an interview phase to collect qualitative data about a subset of participants from three home language profiles that were enrolled in different levels of Spanish. Undergraduate students of Spanish appear to be studying the language to fulfill a requirement and/or because they believe that it has practical applications in their life. It seems likely that there is a relationship between the course level in which undergraduate students are enrolled and both their reasons for studying Spanish as well as their beliefs about Spanish and Spanish speakers. It is also very likely that students from different home language backgrounds have some distinct motivations for studying Spanish and hold slightly different attitudes toward the language. Gender and major or minor field of study may have a relationship with motivations and attitudes, as well. Few students in the introductory courses intend to continue studying Spanish beyond their language requirement; it appears difficult to predict whether or not a student plans to continue based on demographic factors alone, but it does seem likely that continuing students have had a personal experience that sparks their desire to persist in their study of Spanish. On the other hand, students' attitudes toward Spanish tend to reflect both personal experiences and a strong influence from stereotypes and broader ideological discourses that 1) portray language skills as a marketable commodity and 2) employ Spanish as a marker for Hispanics in the United States. The results of this mixed-methods investigation can potentially inform university language requirement policies, strategies used to recruit students into language courses, and language curricula.



Spanish, Motivations, Undergraduate Students, Attitudes, Heritage Language Learners, Language Education