Unintended Coloniality: The Dangers of Using the ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Heritage Spanish Instruction

Rebecca Sawyer, University of Wisconsin-Madison

3:00 pm – 3:30 pm (Room 235)


The term “heritage learner” refers to children that have some measure of receptive or productive skills due to the presence of the Spanish in the home (Valdés, 2014). Due to the history of Spanish in the United States, there is a great deal of variation in the opportunities available to these students to maintain or expand their linguistic repertoire. While some heritage Spanish programs exist, students in areas with smaller Spanish speaking populations are often only able to receive language instruction in Spanish second language (SSL) classrooms designed for monolingual English learners. Because these courses are connected to world language and not bilingual or dual language programs, they are designed based on guidelines from the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL). Using these guidelines in courses with heritage learners is problematic because they are based on native speaker and standard language ideologies that have their roots in colonial language hierarchies. This paper uses the ACTFL Performance Descriptors document to make visible the colonial assumptions about language that determine what counts as language learning success. Use of these descriptors reinscribes language hierarchies that devalue the language practices of heritage learners in SSL classrooms.