Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Insight: Language barriers

Your Spanish proficiency does not diminish your heritage

language barriers.jpg

Insight: Language barriers

Your Spanish proficiency does not diminish your heritage

In the beginning, learning a new language can seem impossible. Not only are you expected to memorize a sea of new vocabulary and a maze of complex syntax rules, but you also have to be willing to make mistakes, accept that embarrassment is inevitable and have the courage to throw yourself into another culture while hoping the native speakers will be patient with you. 

It's even harder when the language you're learning was once connected to your heritage but ultimately removed from your family, making it feel like there are generations of ancestors pressuring you to achieve fluency.

I'm half Mexican, but my family doesn't speak Spanish. After struggling to learn English as a kid, my grandfather refused to pass Spanish down to my mom and aunts, trapping us all in a cultural limbo. What's more, because I'm only partially Mexican, it feels like my claim on the culture is even weaker. And it is — I could easily hide behind my dad's English surname, and no one would know that this other part of me exists. 

But I don't want to hide. For years, I've tried to connect with my Mexican heritage through learning Spanish. 

I struggled through four years of honors high school Spanish instead of opting for the regular section because I embarrassingly assumed the language would come naturally to me. Spoiler: It didn't, and it still hasn't. 

I vividly remember the humiliation I felt burning my cheeks during a high school Spanish final as I watched all my classmates finish early while I was stumped trying to string together coherent sentences. Nonetheless, I kept trying. I added a Spanish minor in college to help me work toward my goal of fluency and one day achieve my dream of traveling through Latin America with ease. While I have made some progress, I still can't help but struggle with guilt and shame whenever I try out my Spanish. 

I'm not alone in this. While 75% of Latinos nationwide reported in a 2022 Pew Research Center survey that they can speak and understand Spanish at a conversational level, that statistic decreases with every generation that an individual's family has lived in the U.S. Less than 70% of second-generation U.S.-born Latinos in the survey said they can speak Spanish, and only 34% of Latinos who are third generation or higher said they can. 

"The U.S. is the perfect place for families to lose their non-English language," said Gabrielle Yocupicio, an instructor in the Spanish Heritage program at ASU. "Most families after the immigrant generation will have that language at home, and then their children might be bilingual. But then their grandchildren and beyond typically shift to English dominance depending on where they live and who they interact with."

The University's Spanish Heritage program aims to expand the Spanish skills of students who have had contact with the language in their families or within some other Spanish-speaking community they're a part of. The program's courses differ from traditional classes for students who are learning Spanish as a second language, in that they focus on cultivating students' cultural knowledge and pride in their heritage.

As a first-generation Mexican American who grew up near the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, Yocupicio personally understands the backgrounds of the Spanish Heritage students she teaches, having lived many of the same experiences they have. 

It's not your fault you don't know Spanish

In the beginner Spanish Heritage courses Yocupicio teaches, in which students "may just have the cultural connection and zero language knowledge," she said some of the projects push students to acquaint themselves with their family lines — and the generational pain that may be intertwined along them. In one project, students are tasked with having in-depth conversations with their grandparents about their experiences with Spanish.

"Sometimes grandparents don't want to talk, but that really helps the students understand that it's not your fault," she said.

"You're not responsible for not knowing Spanish even though you feel like you are or people might tell you that you are responsible. We see how the experience of our relatives informs whether the language is passed down or not."

For many of the students' grandparents, eliminating Spanish from their day-to-day lives was often a painful and difficult experience, brought on by the need to assimilate and survive. But today, the lack of opportunities for bilingual education in Arizona public schools and the rigidity of English as a Second Language classes still make it painful for their grandchildren to be bilingual. 

"When you're bilingual, they put you in reinforcement classes with a special teacher to help with reading, writing and language arts," said Tenoch Meza, a sophomore studying sports journalism who is one of Yocupicio's former Spanish Heritage students. "That's what limited myself and my ability to speak my language, and that's when I really lost the Spanish ability." 

In 2000, Arizona passed Proposition 203, which required that all public school students be taught in English. Students who were considered "English language learners" would be taught in English immersion classes until they had a "good working knowledge" of English. Then, they'd be transferred to a classroom where English was the mainstream. Even though these English immersion classes were meant to be specially designed for students who were still learning English, they failed to help many students.

At the time, Yocupicio was in fourth grade, and she had been taught in a bilingual classroom up until the proposition was imposed. The change almost caused her to fail the grade. 

Now, she researches sociolinguistics, the study of language in relation to social factors. Based on her research, Yocupicio has come to believe that students' English language skills aren't threatened by their background in a bilingual household even though the public school system may treat them as such. 

"The first thing they do when you register a child in public school is ask what language a child is exposed to," she said. "And you say, 'Oh, his grandma speaks Spanish to him,' but the child only knows English. But the moment they hear they're exposed to another language, it makes it suspicious. So then they're given an exam in English, and (because) a five-year-old hasn't taken an exam, they don't pass."

Once able to speak in Spanish, Jazlene Nevarez Carrillo, a freshman studying transborder Chicano and Latino studies, eventually lost most of her Spanish abilities in mandated ESL classes. 

"I knew a few words and I could understand, but I just couldn't speak Spanish anymore," Carrillo said. "It was weird too because I lived with my grandparents who spoke Spanish, but even they didn't speak it to me — it was just English … Being in a Hispanic household that's supposed to encourage Spanish and keep the culture alive, I didn't really feel connected to my culture."

When Carrillo was younger, her mom swore Carrillo only spoke Spanish. But once she got older, something changed along the way — she no longer knew Spanish. As a result, Carrillo began asking her family why. 

"The first person I went to was my mom because ultimately, she made all those decisions for me," Carrillo said. "And when she found out that I was getting placed in ESL, she kind of took that offense from the school, saying, 'Oh, so you think my daughter can't speak English.' And because of that, she kind of used it as her own fuel to have me be more dominant in English."

Carrillo's mom began to speak to her in English and asked her grandparents to switch to English around her as well. Around that time, her parents divorced, and her father — who only spoke Spanish — moved out of the house, effectively erasing her connection to the language. 

"When my mom told me about that, I felt not betrayed but just, 'Why didn't you want to let me learn both languages at the same time? Why did you take that part away from me?'" Carrillo said.

It's 'no sé,' not 'no sabo'

"No sabo kid" is a relatively new term to describe young Hispanic people who can't speak or aren't fluent in Spanish. At best, it's used to lightly tease. At worst, the label can shame and exclude those who already feel shut out from their heritage. 

The "no sabo" portion of the term mockingly refers to a purportedly incorrect way of saying "no sé," which is Spanish for "I don't know."

When Carrillo visits her family in Mexico, she knows they're going to mock the quality of her Spanish skills. Since she asked her family to start speaking to her in Spanish again, she's built up her fluency and started to reconnect with the language. But the pronunciation of Spanish words differs depending on regions, and families are often all too willing to let you know when you don't measure up, Carrillo said. 

"Mexican Spanish and U.S. Spanish are completely different," she said. "Whenever I go there (Mexico), they would always give me names like 'the white girl' or 'the northern girl,' always giving me names based on where I live.

"When I was smaller, it would make me feel like they didn't really love me — why would your family who cares about you try to categorize you in groups, make fun of me and mimic my words?"

Even though the term "no sabo kid" may be relatively new, the concept it mockingly refers to is not. Growing up, Yocupicio was often called "Pocha," another term for Hispanic Americans who aren't fluent in Spanish.

"It was hard, and I felt like I wasn't Mexican enough and I'm not American enough," she said. "I felt that throughout my entire schooling, basically."

Now, as a Spanish Heritage instructor at ASU, she explores what it means to be fluent and the preconceived notions heritage students have of what proper Spanish is. 

"It wasn't until college when I took a freshman course for heritage learners (that I learned) what that (term) meant," Yocupicio said. "(I) realized it was having a language as part of your background that you were exposed to as a child, so you understand some of it, but maybe you lack some of the literacy skills. And I found there was a huge community of students that had the exact same experience." 

In order to learn how to best guide her students, Yocupicio begins most of her bilingual heritage Spanish classes by asking her students about their language goals. 

"A lot of them say their goal is to speak properly," Yocupicio said.

"What does proper mean? What is informal? What is formal? How are these things real? Are they subjective? How do they define a standard or the formality? And then we start to realize, oh my gosh, there's a whole bunch of opinions about what is proper, what isn't proper."

After setting these goals, Yocupicio then begins to introduce her students to sociolinguistics topics to demonstrate that there is no one "proper" way to formally learn a language.

"Eventually, we get to a point where I will try to explicitly say, 'We're not here to correct anything. You're here to keep what you have, and we're going to add more,'" Yocupicio said. "So we want you to keep your Spanglish words, whatever you define as a formal, informal, slang, let's keep it, absolutely everything. The idea is you can use the language however you're comfortable with because people are not going to be pleased no matter what."

To unlearn her own preconceived notions of what proper language looks like, Yocupicio also had to be explicitly instructed in the same way. Once she did, however, she knew she wanted to enter the linguistics field and share her realizations with students and other teachers. 

One of those key realizations was that "no sabo" actually makes grammatical sense. 

"I've had students identify as no sabo kids, and something I like to do is look at the verb and break it down," Yocupicio said. "We're studying present tense, and what are the rules for present tense? Verbs in present tense take the -o. It follows the form.

"So technically, if you say 'no sabo,' that means your brain has internalized the present tense rules for regular verbs, and you have a lot of knowledge. And my students are like, 'Oh my gosh!' It just so happens that 'saber' is irregular."

Connecting beyond language

Like myself, Meza and Carrillo are both dedicated to strengthening their Spanish and reaching a level of fluency that they're proud of — whatever that may look like. While language is a major step toward reclaiming and connecting with Latino culture, it's not the be-all and end-all. 

Beyond learning Spanish, Carrillo found that food is one of the most direct ways to connect with her heritage after begging her grandma to teach her how to make tortillas.

"Food is a big part of our life," Carrillo said. "So I feel like that's a really good starting point on, you know, how to connect with your ancestry." 

It wasn't until Meza added a Spanish minor and started to connect with classmates who shared many of the same experiences as him that he found a community.

"It was my second year … (when) I took advanced bilingual Spanish, where I felt welcome, like I belong(ed) for once — finally," Meza said. "I made friends because I could bond with them in the culture aspect, because (they have) similar beliefs as me."

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.

This story is part of The Culture Issue, which was released on Feb. 28, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @audrey_eagerton on X.

Like State Press Magazine on Facebook, follow @statepressmag on X and Instagram and read our releases on Issuu.

Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.