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How to Confidently Approach Learning Spanish When Your Heritage is Latin American

Without fail, I tend to have a steady flow of students who are Latino/a but don’t speak Spanish. During the introductory meeting with prospective students, I always ask what is their “why” for learning Spanish. For my Latino/a students, I always hear the longing in their voices as they tell me that they really just want to connect to their heritage and culture. They want to learn so that they can communicate with their Latin American grandmother. Or so that they can pass Spanish on to their kids. Or so that they can respond when their Latin American brothers and sisters approach them assuming that they speak Spanish.

As a disclaimer, I am not Latina, so I don’t have first-hand experience. But, I have learned a lot from my Latino/a students about what it looks like to confidently push past the shame of not knowing Spanish into a hope and excitement that it isn’t too late to learn. I’m going to share with you 4 mindsets that I’ve observed have helped them learn Spanish.

Mindset 1: There’s no shame in not knowing something you were never taught.

Many black and brown parents who raised their kids in the 1970s-1990s (or, heck the 1900s in general) were led to believe that differences are bad. They felt the need to help their children “fall in line” and be less “different.” Of course, nowadays we know that the exact opposite is true. Differences make us beautiful and are meant to be celebrated! But, not so many years ago, differences were met with shame. If you are a Latino/a Spanish learner, I challenge you to not focus on the fact that you don’t know Spanish because you weren’t taught as a child. Instead, remember that it was not your choice. Unfortunately, Latino parents that chose to not teach their children Spanish just thought that they were acting in the best interest of their kids. There is no shame in being in the place that you are because of someone else’s decisions. 

Mindset 2: It is now up to you to learn Spanish.

But, just because there is no shame in what you did not cause does not mean that you are off the hook. It is now up to you to learn Spanish. The ball is in your court and the question is…what are you going to do about it? As an adult, you have the opportunity make a wrong right. I’ve seen learning Spanish be a conscious and urgent choice for my Latino/a students. One of my Latina students, after a couple of sessions with Bridge the Gap, made the choice to jump all in and attend an all-immersive Spanish school in Oaxaca, Mexico. She knew that she didn’t want to waste anymore time hoping and wishing that she knew Spanish. Another student requested that she be matched with a conversation teacher that would speak mostly in Spanish with her so that she would be challenged to grow faster in her speaking skills.

Mindset 3: You owe it to yourself to learn Spanish.

You’ve heard it before…”you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I’ve heard my Latino/a students express a longing to learn Spanish because they knew something was missing within themselves. Although it can be easy to stay in a pseudo-comfort zone of not knowing Spanish, the truth is there is so much freedom on the other side. I’ve seen it first-hand in my Latino/a students. As they begin to learn and communicate in Spanish, they realize that what they thought might have be missing really was missing. A new light, excitement, and confidence shines in their eyes. But, unfortunately, this does not come without stepping out there to learn. You owe yourself the chance to experience the freedom of connecting with your Latin American heritage in this way. One of my Latina students works in healthcare and has been building her speaking confidence. She’s finally started speaking to her Latino/a patients in Spanish! When she told me about it, I could sense the liberation in her voice. She was finally able to connect with others from her heritage and culture through communicating in Spanish.

Mindset 4: The desire to learn Spanish will never go away.

I believe that this applies to any deep desire that we as humans have, especially when it has to do with our heritage and culture. Heritage and culture runs deep. Maybe it can be compared to the experience of an adopted child being reunited with his/her birth mom. An instant, natural, and strong connection forms right on the spot. The same kind of occurrence happens when you tap into your heritage and culture by speaking Spanish. There is absolutely nothing like it. Ask Latino/a students who have learned Spanish as an adult. They are bound to tell you that choosing to learn was life-changing. Time is of the essence, because the truth is that time will pass no matter what. You will be five years older in five years no matter what, so the question is “where do you want to be in that five years?” Still yearning or finally feeling the confidence you’ve always longed for?

So, if you are Latino/a and don’t speak Spanish yet, my question to you is…what are you waiting for? There’s a freedom on the other side of learning the language of your heritage and culture. At least, this has been my observation standing on the outside looking in.

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