YVC Voice

  /  Feature   /  Empowering language
Instructor speaks to Spanish for Heritage Learners class

Empowering language

Heritage learners of Spanish find new paths

Growing up in a Spanish-speaking home in Grandview, Chloé Peterson thought enrolling in a Spanish 100 class at Yakima Valley College would be an easy way to earn credits toward her associate in arts degree.  

It wasn’t long before her instructor, Melinda Chiprez, pulled Peterson aside. 

“She let me know that YVC had this other pathway, Spanish for Heritage Learners, where I could get the credits I needed,” Peterson said. “I never intended it, but I ended up taking all of the heritage learner classes at the Grandview Campus. It really helped dictate the rest of my education.” 

After completing her associate degree through the Running Start program, Peterson transferred to Central Washington University and graduated in December 2023 with her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and an emphasis in translation and interpretation.  

She’s now working for Grandview School District special education department and helps support Spanish-speaking families. She’s also applying to enter a graduate program in educational psychology at Eastern Washington University in hopes of making an even bigger impact.  

“As part of my [bachelor’s] degree I needed to gain experience interpreting in a public setting, so I did that in a public school and became aware of the lack of translation services in special education,” Peterson said. “I think it’s very beneficial for families to be able to communicate directly with education professionals and so I want to make a difference in that area.” 

We want to go beyond our borders and have our students be empowered to use the language to reach out more broadly.” — Melinda Chiprez, Spanish for Heritage Learners instructor

Supporting heritage learners 

Like Peterson, Chiprez grew up speaking Spanish at home but, starting in elementary school, did her schooling in English.  

When visiting and talking with her relatives in Mexico, however, Chiprez said she and her siblings would get comments about their Spanish not being correct.  

“I went to college and I decided, well, this is my language, this is my identity. I want to really learn my language and understand it and see how it is spoken in other countries,” she said.

Melinda Chiprez headshot
ABOVE: Melinda Chiprez, who teaches Spanish for Heritage Learners classes at YVC's Grandview Campus, says her students can gain new opportunities when they enhance their language skills. TOP: Instructor Luis Bello-Zarallo teaches a Spanish for Heritage Learners class on YVC's Yakima Campus in Winter Quarter 2024.

While Chiprez was excited to learn more about the Spanish language during her college studies, she also received a wake-up call when she came home and criticized her mother for not using formal Spanish in their everyday conversations. It was a moment that helped set the foundation for the Spanish for Heritage Learners (SHL) classes she would later teach at YVC. 

“Right away, I tell students we have to respect what we speak at home — what your parents speak at home, what your community speaks at home — because we’re in an environment where language is constantly changing,” Chiprez says. “Our Spanish is changing not only because of the influence of English because we also have a lot of Indigenous dialect in our Spanish.” 

Chiprez taught the first SHL course at YVC about a decade ago to better support the large number of young people in the Yakima Valley who were growing up in Spanish-speaking homes. 

When students enroll in their first Spanish course, Chiprez said YVC faculty do a quick assessment of language skills. It’s not uncommon to have students enroll in a beginning-level course even though they regularly used Spanish.  

“They might be timid of going into that 200-level course, but we want to make sure they’re going into the classes that best meet their language skills,” Chiprez said. “Even though students may have never formally studied Spanish before, they’re coming in with lots of vocabulary and they’re able to communicate with their peers and family members. We respect and validate what they have but we give them opportunities to really expand that vocabulary and get that structure correct.” 

Students in SHL classes (Spanish 231, 232 and 233) tackle more advanced reading and speaking skills, with a focus on the career objectives of students in each class. 

“If students are going into the nursing program, we want them to know the vocabulary they’re going to use in that program. If students are going into legal, if they want to be a paralegal or a lawyer, we want to study that terminology and work with that type of vocabulary,” said Chiprez. “Every week we work with something different depending on the areas that students are going into and what they’re going to use in real life situations.”

Spanish for Heritage Learners Instructor in class
Instructor Luis Bello-Zarallo has taught Spanish for Heritage Learners courses at YVC for six years.

Challenges and opportunities 

Since YVC offered its first SHL course, demand has steadily grown. Up to four classes are now offered every quarter, with in-person, online and hybrid options. At any one time, there are typically between 60 and 80 students combined in those classes. 

Luis Bello-Zarallo, who’s been teaching SHL classes at the college for six years, noted that one challenge in teaching the courses is that heritage learners arrive with very diverse levels of language proficiency. 

“Tailoring instruction to accommodate at the same time students who are native speakers and others who have limited vocabulary and grammar can be a big challenge,” Bello-Zarallo said.  

That means he and other SHL instructors work to build on existing language skills and address the specific needs of individual students.  

“Code switching habits is another challenge in SHL classes,” he noted. “Heritage students are used to code switching between Spanish and English and/or use the ‘Spanglish’ dialect.”  

While code switching or alternating between multiple languages during a conversation is common, Chiprez noted that how that’s done can vary widely between various communities, so it’s important for heritage learners understand how to communicate effectively both within a particular community and more broadly.   

“It’s important to understand how to expand that vocabulary into wherever region that you go,” Chiprez said. “So that, whether you go to Spain or you go to Mexico or you go to Argentina, people will understand you. We want to go beyond our borders and have our students be empowered to use the language to reach out more broadly.” 

Spanish is something I’ve inherited, but it’s also a tool I can use to help other people in my community.” — Chloé Peterson, Spanish for Heritage Learners student

Bello-Zarallo said his courses for heritage learners also prioritize content culturally relevant to his students’ backgrounds. That includes history, traditions and expressions specific to Spanish-speaking communities.  

In addition to celebrating the diversity of the Yakima Valley’s Spanish-speaking communities, Bello-Zarallo believes that SHL classes help foster a greater sense of inclusion and cultural representation within the college. And ultimately, that contributes to student success. 

“Providing courses specifically designed for heritage learners can contribute to higher academic success rates and graduation rates,” he said. “When students see the relevance of their cultural background in their education, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to completing their academic goals.” 

For Peterson, that’s exactly what happened, as taking SHL courses opened her eyes to a new way of looking at Spanish. 

“It existed as more than just a language that I speak,” she said. “I learned so much about the value of the language, culture and history. Spanish is something I’ve inherited, but it’s also a tool I can use to help other people in my community.” 

Being in the same classes with other heritage learners helped foster a strong sense of community, Peterson says. So strong, in fact, that several years after she graduated from YVC, the friendships she built with classmates have continued to this day.  

“Everything we talked about and learned in those classes helped instill a mindset that I’ve grown and matured through my education,” Peterson said. “It was truly a life changing experience for me.” 

Story and photos by Dustin Wunderlich, director of community relations.