Category: Original Research Studies

Are Heritage Language Learners More Proficient Speakers than Writers?

A text bubble with Spanish writing


  Alberta Gatti
  Syelle Graves


The Study

This page features details about ILETC’s 2020 publication in Foreign Language Annals, entitled “Are Heritage Speakers of Spanish Significantly Better at Speaking than at Writing? Results of an experiment on writing and speaking proficiencies—actual and perceived.”

Summary Published on OASIS

View the summary below; download a pdf of it here.

The summary has been published on the OASIS (Open Accessible Summaries in Language Studies) website, here, where it can also be freely downloaded.

OASIS_summary_Gatti Graves Are Heritage Speakers for ILETC SITE

Visit the Publication

Visit the publication on the Foreign Language Annals website: DOI

Full Citation

Gatti, A., & Graves, S. (2020). Are Heritage Speakers of Spanish Significantly Better at Speaking than at Writing? Results of an experiment on writing and speaking proficiencies—actual and perceived. Foreign Language Annals, 53(4),  940–941.

Survey Instrument Published on IRIS

This study’s survey instrument has been openly shared for use here on the IRIS database (a digital repository of instruments and materials for research into second languages). The survey can also be downloaded on the ILETC website, here.

Video Abstract

The video abstract below has also been published by Wiley on the Foreign Language Annals website, at


Phonological Advantages of Heritage Learners of Japanese

[Download PDF]

Tomonori Nagano (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY), Mieko Sperbeck (John Jay College, CUNY), Ai Mizoguchi (CUNY Graduate Center), & Jun Choi (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY)


This ongoing experimental study examined whether or not heritage language (HL) learners of Japanese have significant advantages over second language (L2) learners of Japanese on phonological tasks as well as syntactic (grammar) tasks. Previous studies have found that HL learners benefit from a significant advantage in phonological knowledge over L2 learners but are on par with L2 learners in syntactic (grammar) knowledge. In our experiment, a total of 24 native speakers of Japanese, HL speakers of Japanese, and Japanese L2 learners were recruited and tested with two phonological tasks and two syntactic tasks.

Research Questions

  • Do Japanese heritage language learners have a learning advantage in phonological knowledge but not in syntactic knowledge?
  • If so, what are the pedagogical implications of this imbalance?


Heritage Language Speakers (Polinsky & Kagan, 2007)

  • HL speakers/learners are bilingual speakers who have acquired their minority (non-English) languages at home
  • HL speakers/learners have undergone the shift of their primary language from the home language to English due to social Anglophone pressure such as K-12 schooling
  • “[A] language student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken” and “speaks or at least understands the language (…) and is to some degree bilingual in that language and in English” (Valdés, 2001, p. 38).”

Previous Studies

  • Au et al. (2002), Knightly et al. (2003), and Oh et al. (2003)
    • Korean and Spanish low-proficiency HL speakers had better phonological perception and production (in terms of voice onset time or VOT) than L2 speakers at the same proficiency
  • Other studies also found phonological advantages among HL speakers
  • Au et al. (2002) and Knightly et al. (2003) begin{itemize
    • Korean and Spanish low-proficiency HL speakers did not perform better than L2 speakers in the morphosyntax task (e.g., gender agreement among determiners, adjectives, and nouns in Spanish)
  • Other studies also found no syntactic advantage among HL speakers, but the results are quite mixed.

Experiment Design

  • The experiment was designed with PsychoPy (Peirce, 2012), a Python-based psychology experiment program. Audio recordings were analyzed with Praat (Boersma & Weenink, 2001).
  • The experiment consists of: vspace{-0.02in begin{itemize
    • Language background questionnaire (5 min)
    • Japanese vocabulary test (70 JLPT vocabulary items / 10-15 min)
    • Pronunciation elicitation task (30-45 min)
    • Grammatical judgment task (30-45 min)
  • All research participants received $25 honorarium for their participation.
  • The participant recruitment is still continuing. As of today, we have tested
    • 11 native Japanese speakers
    • 6 HL Japanese speakers
    • 7 L2 Japanese speakers


Vowel length and the length of moraic nasal

  • Participants were asked to produce the target word in a career sentence: さっき X と言 (い)った。
  • The target words (x) are minimal pairs of: begin{itemize
    • Vowel length (e.g., おじいさん /oji:san/ vs. おじさん /ojisan/)
    • Moraic nasal (e.g., あんまり /aNmari/ vs. あまり /amari/ )
  • Praat was used to measure the durations of the following segments: begin{itemize
    • Vowel length, length of moraic nasal, and the whole word

Long-distance binding of reflective pronoun 自分 (jibun) (Kuno, 1976)

  • In Japanese, the antecedent of 自分 (じぶん) (jibun) can be in the matrix clause of the compound sentence (long-distance)
    • John says that Mary will take good care of herself/*himself. (self = Mary, not John)
    • ジョンは、メアリーが自分 (じぶん)を大事 (だいじ)にすると言 (い)った (自分 (じぶん) = John or Mary)
  • The dative phrase (adjunct) cannot be the antecedent of jibun
    • ジョンは、メアリーに自分 (じぶん)を大事 (だいじ)にすると言 (い)った (自分 (じぶん) = John)

Manner-of-motion vs. Inherently directed motion verbs + PP (Inagaki, 2001, 2002)

  • Manner-of-motion verb takes locational particle で whereas inherently-directed motion verb takes directional particle に. begin{itemize
    • [mannerV + locational PP]: ビルは、公園 (こうえん)で歩 (ある)いた。
    • [mannerV + directional PP] (questionable): superscript{?ビルは、公園 (こうえん)に歩 (ある)いた。
    • [inherently-directedV + directional PP]: ビルは、公園 (こうえん)に行 (い)った。
[inherently-directedV + locational PP] (ungram): *ビルは、公園 (こうえん)で行 (い)った


JLPT Vocabulary Items (max 80 points) / Proficiency level

  • Most heritage participants were intermediate-advanced proficiency whereas L2 participants were low-intermediate proficiency.
  • Proficiency is not matched; More high-intermediate L2 participants needed.

Vowel length contrast (V vs. VV)

  • The duration ratios of long to short vowels are similar between native and heritage speakers.
  • L2 speakers’ duration ratios of long to short vowels are significantly smaller than those of Japanese and heritage speakers.

Nasal Contrast

  • The duration ratios of words with /N/ to those without /N/ are similar between native and L2 speakers.
  • However, L2 speakers made numerous pronunciation errors compared to heritage speakers (28% errors vs. 4% errors).

Results of the long-distance jibun

Results of the Motion Verbs + PP (on the scale of 1-7; SD in parentheses)


  • The data at hand show somewhat more complex pattern than the phonology-vs-(morpho)syntax dichotomy. begin{itemize
    • Heritage advantage in: begin{itemize
      • Phonological: Vowel contrast (V vs. VV)
      • Syntactic: Long-distance reflexive pronoun
    • No heritage advantage in begin{itemize
      • Phonological: Nasal /N/ contrast
      • Syntactic: P (-ni or -de) + Motion verbs
    • Statistical analysis with a larger sample (esp. advanced L2) is necessary.

Pedagogical Implications

  • The results of production tasks have shown that Japanese HL learners have advantage in producing short vs. long vowel contrast but not in nasal /N/ contrast. What this means is that both HL and L2 learners of Japanese will benefit if provided with the instruction that will focus on improving oral production skills of /N/. It may be useful to explicitly show how Japanese /N/ is produced depending on the immediately following consonant. /N/ is realized as a uvular nasal when it’s placed either word- or sentence-finally. Otherwise, /N/ is known as having allophones depending on the following phoneme; [m] when followed by bilabials, [ŋ] when followed by velars, and [n] when followed by alveolars (Vance 2008). L2 learners of Japanese will also benefit from additional instructions to develop a sense of sub-syllabic unit ‘mora’ as a basic unit of sound. For instance, classroom activities such as mora-counting activity and perceptual discrimination activity might be beneficial. In the former, an instructor asks students to count how many mora(e) a word contains (e.g., ‘ぶんがく /buNgaku/’ as 4 morae and ‘ぶがく/bugaku/’ as 3 morae). In the latter task, students will be asked to identify whether two words that they were presented auditory are the same or different (e.g., ‘ゆき ゆうき/yuki – yuuki/’ as different).


Please cite as:  ”Phonological Advantages of Heritage Learners of Japanese, (2018) New York, NY: Tomonori Nagano (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY), Mieko Sperbeck (John Jay College, CUNY), Ai Mizoguchi (CUNY Graduate Center), & Jun Choi (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY). Retrieved from:

Materials developed with financial support from ILETC.

Reshaping language interpreting pedagogy through students’ self-perception of their role as ad hoc interpreters

[Download PDF]

Aída Martínez-Gómez

John Jay College of Criminal Justice


This study aims to analyze the initial assumptions about and attitudes toward interpreting by heritage language learners who have experience as informal interpreters (e.g., for their families and communities) before they enter a formal undergraduate translation and interpretation program. Its ultimate goal is to contribute to the development of pedagogical methods that capitalize on the strengths that these students already possess and that are sensitive to the needs that emerge from their experiences as family interpreters.

Description of the study


Interpreter education has traditionally focused on elective sequential bilinguals (i.e., individuals who grew up as monolinguals and purposefully acquired their L2 after childhood). However, the student body in Spanish interpreting programs in the U.S. is mainly comprised of heritage learners who also have previous experience as language brokers. When these young bilinguals act as interpreters for LEP (limited English proficiency) members of their communities, they not only intuitively develop interpreting skills, but also are affected by the social and emotional relationships that they have with the LEP individuals. This study attempts to incorporate these life experiences to formal curricula.


  • Participants: Three cohorts of students registered in the Spanish BA (Translation and Interpretation concentration) or in the Certificate Programs in Legal Translation and Interpreting at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (n=67)
    • Cohort 1 (n=19); Cohort 2 (n=27); Cohort 3 (n=21)
  • Data collection instrument: Self-administered online-based questionnaire that included:
  • an informed consent form;
  • 16 sociodemographic questions;
  • the Interpreter Interpersonal Role Inventory (Angelelli 2004), with a total of 38 Likert-scale items about the role of the interpreter;[1] and
  • an open space for a narrative where students share their perceptions about their tasks as interpreters through stories or anecdotes (approx. 500 words).
  • Data collection timeline

Responses for each cohort were collected during the first two weeks in the first interpreting course required for these academic programs (SPA 231 Interpreting I). This course was offered in fall 2015 (cohort 1), fall 2016 (cohort 2), and fall 2017 (cohort 3).

  • Analysis methods

For the purposes of this study, only parts (b) and (d) from the data collection instrument section above were analyzed:

  • Sociodemographic questions: descriptive statistics (quantitative)
  • 500-word narratives: thematic analysis (qualitative)

[1] This Inventory includes statements about actual experiences (“During an interpretation I constantly check my position to be neutral”), as well as about underlying perspectives on the interpreter’s role (“It is not my job to try to read the parties’ emotions or re-express them”. Respondents indicate their degree of agreement with each statement on a six-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”.


Questionnaire (part B of data collection instrument)

  • Sociodemographic information
    • 80% Female
    • 4 years old (mean)
    • 55% born abroad:
    • Arrived to USA at age 11.4 (mean)
    • From 14 different countries of origin/backgrounds:
    • 37% Dominican, 19% Ecuadorian, 16% Mexican.
  • Informal interpreting experience:
    • Started interpreting at age 13.4 (mean)
    • For parents (96%), family friends (61%), other relatives (46%)
    • Daily (21%) or a few times/week (43%)
    • In healthcare (82%), shopping (70%), education (53%), social services (46%)

Narratives (part D of data collection instrument)

Perception of role

Participants see interpreting as part of a set of multiple roles that they (are called to) perform for the well-being of the family/community. They see themselves as assistants, emotional supporters, advocates, etc. In fact, they often claim to be the main “problem solvers” of the family.


Participants expressed mixed feelings about interpreting.

Positive feelings: feelings of accomplishment, joy, pride around two major sources of satisfaction: ability to give back to their community and work towards social justice for individuals made vulnerable because of the language barrier (especially close family members); opportunities for self-improvement regarding their language and interpreting skills.

Negative feelings: feelings of frustration, burden, self-doubt, fear, dispiritedness, etc., associated with the following triggers:

  1. Demands and expectations from family members
  2. Self-imposed high standards of performance
  3. Role reversal within the family structure
  4. Lack of trust in their abilities/intentions
  5. Potential negative consequences of their interpreting errors
  6. Emotionally-loaded situations
  7. Conflicting responsibilities (interpreting vs. schoolwork)
  8. Language/interpreting difficulties (see next section)

Assessment of interpreting skills

Features of successful interpretations (commonly associated with positive feelings): Informants felt comfortable and confident in their ability to facilitate successful interlinguistic communication when:

  • Matters discussed were basic and easily understandable (e.g., shopping)
  • Primary participants supported them to accomplish effective communication:
    • Linguistically: lowering register, providing explanations, ensuring interpreters’ understanding
    • Conversationally: speaking slowly and in short sentences, providing pauses for interpretation
    • Emotionally: making interpreter feel comfortable, showing empathy for language challenges, showing confidence in interpreter’s skills

Main difficulties (commonly associated with negative feelings): Informants encountered problems in the following areas:

  • Lack of confidence in language skills
    • Particularly troubled by “lack of vocabulary”
  • Terminological difficulties: legal, medical
  • Difficulties understanding concepts/complex matters
  • Difficulties related to interpreting techniques: speed (fast speakers), memory
  • Difficulties related to interpersonal factors: conveying emotions, insults/curses
  • Lack of collaboration from primary participants: speed, tone, register, politeness, impatience, pressure to deliver

Own lack of impartiality (i.e., judging family members or English speakers)

Implications for interpreter education

Interpreting Competence

Translation (and interpretation) competence is understood as “the underlying system of knowledge, skills and attitudes required to translate” (PACTE Group 2017a: 294). According to the PACTE research group, Translation Competence comprises the following subcompetences:

  • Bilingual sub-competence: “Predominantly procedural knowledge required to communicate in two languages. […] It comprises pragmatic, sociolinguistic, textual, grammatical and lexical knowledge in the two languages.”
  • Extralinguistic sub-competence. “Predominantly declarative knowledge, compris[ing] bicultural […], encyclopaedic […, and] subject knowledge.”
  • Knowledge of Translation sub-competence: “Predominantly declarative knowledge, […] about what translation is and aspects of the profession. It comprises: (1) knowledge about how translation functions: translation units, processes required, methods and procedures used (strategies and techniques), and types of problems; (2) knowledge related to professional translation practice.”
  • Instrumental sub-competence. “Predominantly procedural knowledge related to the use of documentation resources and information and communication technologies applied to translation.”
  • Strategic sub-competence. “Procedural knowledge to guarantee the efficiency of the translation process and solve problems encountered.”
  • Psycho-physiological components. “Different types of cognitive and attitudinal components and psycho-motor mechanisms. They include: (1) cognitive components such as memory, perception, attention and emotion; (2) attitudinal aspects such as intellectual curiosity, perseverance, rigour, critical spirit, knowledge about and confidence in one’s own abilities, the ability to measure one’s own abilities, motivation, etc.; (3) abilities such as creativity, logical reasoning, analysis and synthesis, etc.” (PACTE Group 2017b: 39-40)

According to Angelelli (2002: 25-26), interpreter education must focus on teaching (bilingual and bicultural) interactional competence by ensuring the development of skills in six areas, five of which either overlap or could be included in the sub-competences above:

  • Linguistic: it overlaps with bilingual sub-competence.
  • Setting: declarative and procedural knowledge of the “different ways of speaking in a variety of discourse communities, as well as the content and terms that are at the core of it”. It overlaps with bilingual and extralinguistic sub-competences.
  • Sociocultural: declarative knowledge about “the impact that both institution[s] and society have on the interaction, [… and their] constraints”. It is a specific aspect of the extralinguistic sub-competence.
  • Cognitive processing: “specific skills related to the process of interpreting (e.g., active listening, memory expansion, split attention, and note taking).” It overlaps with the cognitive psycho-physiological components, although some aspects (e.g., note taking) could be subsumed under the instrumental sub-competence as a series of abilities specifically related to interpreting (not translation).
  • Professional: declarative knowledge of “job ethics, certification processes, and professional associations’ rules and regulations”. It overlaps with knowledge of translation sub-competence
  • Interpersonal: declarative and procedural knowledge of “the concept of role”, including understanding of “the continuum of visibility and neutrality” and “awareness of the power they have, their agency, and the responsibilities and duties that arise from it”. This area could be considered a completely different and independent sub-competence that is nonetheless central for interpreting.

Suggestions to incorporate the study findings to interpreting pedagogies

Analyzing the study findings through the lens of Interpreting Competence allows educators to identify the needs of this specific student body and potential ways to make them central to our curricula. The narratives analyzed above showed participants’ particular concern regarding their language skills (both in general and, most notably, in specialized settings), conversation management and various interpersonal matters, all of which can affect them psychologically.

Bilingual sub-competence:

Students need to gain self-confidence in their language skills:

  • Educators and peers can act as catalyzers, creating a nonjudgmental environment for language use in the classroom and encouraging positive feedback
  • Students develop their language skills from a positive understanding of their already solid foundation, through regular exposure to and practice of both languages.
  • Educators and students work together to overcome the fear of “lack of vocabulary”. Educators can guide students through activities focusing on lexical research and acquisition, glossary building, development of lexical availability (e.g., through competitive/interactive classroom activities), etc.

Extralinguistic sub-competence:

Students learn about specialized areas of knowledge and institutional settings:

  • Contexts can be selected from the students’ own experiences.
  • Educators can encourage and guide the research and acquisition of declarative knowledge on certain areas.
  • Peers can act as co-researchers and jointly train other students in their selected areas.
  • Strategies for acquisition of specialized terminology can be similar to those presented for the development of bilingual sub-competence.
  • These processes also contribute to developing the instrumental sub-competence

Knowledge of Interpreting sub-competence:

Students learn about interpreting and its profession:

  • Learning about Interpreting Competence as a broad set of skills may reduce students’ fixation on language skills and perceived vocabulary deficiencies.
  • Learning about basic interpreting theory (Gile’s Efforts Model, cognitive studies on expertise and deliberate practice) may reduce anxiety and stress through awareness and active management of the complex cognitive processes involved in interpreting.
  • Critical readings about codes of ethics and standards of practice may equip students with tools to react confidently to conflicts. (See further discussion of ethics under Interpersonal subcompetence.)

Interpersonal sub-competence:

The vast majority of conflicts that students report are interpersonal. Students need to strengthen their ability to work with people, build their trust, and react to potential conflict.

  • Educators can foster a climate of awareness of and respect for the pressures that students experience from their family members, their sense of responsibility and obligation, and their views on interpersonal relationships in interpreting environments.
  • Critical discussions of interpersonal difficulties or conflicts becomes essential for students to process their previous experiences, to analyze the implications of different courses of action, and to extract principles for future problem-solving
    • Examples of challenging scenarios can be selected from the students’ own experiences.
    • Discussion includes reflection on the expectations of the parties involved in the constraints imposed by the setting.
    • Discussion includes the applicability of current codes of ethics to certain contexts and/or specific experiences (and the limitations thereof).
    • Readings about interpreting users’ expectations and about the multifaceted role of the interpreter can stimulate discussion.
  • Educators and students commit to nonjudgmental analysis and critique of interpreter behaviors in order to ensure that all points of view are shared.
  • Educators guide students in the analysis of conversation management roadblocks (speed, interruptions, overlapping talk, lengthy utterances) and in the development of problem-solving strategies for these issues.

Psycho-physiological components

Participants report a conflicted relationship with interpreting, which triggers both positive feelings to the point of considering interpreting as a career and negative feelings to the point of avoiding interpreting situations. Emotional support and relief thus becomes a central part of the curriculum:

  • The classroom becomes a space to heighten positive feelings. Students’ drive to fight for linguistic rights and social justice is a powerful motivation.
  • Positive feedback from educators and peers contributes to the development of self-confidence.
  • Work on the above-mentioned sub-competences may reduce the negative feelings related to experienced difficulties.
  • The classroom becomes a safe environment to share negative feelings.
    • Students can engage in individual journaling to process feelings and anxieties (to be shared or not with instructors and peers)
    • If possible and available, educators can work together with the school’s Counseling Center, encouraging students to use their service and enlisting the professionals’ participation in certain classes or activities.
    • Readings on vicarious trauma in interpreters can be used to encourage discussion regarding coping with emotional information shared during interpretations
  • Educators offer debriefing opportunities for both simulated activities in the classroom (see Strategic sub-competence below) and for actual experiences outside the classroom.
    • Students get used to check with themselves after an assignment and analyze and process feelings and emotions that may emerge.
  • Students create an maintain peer-support networks reaching beyond the classroom
    • The degree of instructor’s guidance and participation depends on the preferences of each specific group of students and may range from sharing the idea and encouraging the creation of these networks to more active participation and direct support.

Strategic sub-competence:

All the sub-competences listed above are developed and strengthened jointly through specific interpreting practice and self-reflection:

  • Students’ real interpreting experiences can be reflected through role-plays in the safe environment of the classroom
  • Practice in the community (through volunteering or internships) provides real experiential learning opportunities
    • The nature and intensity of mentor supervision can be controlled depending on the readiness level of students
  • In both types of activities, exposure to increasingly complex interpreting scenarios can be controlled depending on the readiness level of students
  • These activities serve as powerful discussion tools regarding decision-making processes, interpreting behaviors and students’ attitudes.


Angelelli, C. (2002). Designing curriculum for healthcare interpreter education: A principles approach. In C. Roy (Ed.), New approaches to interpreter education (pp. 23-46). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Angelelli, C. (2004). Revisiting the interpreter’s role. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Gile, D. (1995). Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

PACTE Group. (2017a). Conclusions: Defining features of Translation Competence. In A. Hurtado Albir (Ed.), Researching Translation Competence by PACTE Group (pp. 281-302). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

PACTE Group. (2017b). PACTE Translation Competence model: A holistic, dynamic model of Translation Competence. In A. Hurtado Albir (Ed.), Researching Translation Competence by PACTE Group (pp. 35-41). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Please cite as:  “Reshaping language interpreting pedagogy through students’ self-perception of their role as ad hoc interpreters,” (2018) New York, NY: Aída Martínez-Gómez. Retrieved from:

Materials developed with financial support from ILETC.