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2020 Innovation in Language Program Direction Award: Racial/social justice

09 Dec 2020 3:55 PM | Robert L. Davis (Administrator)

Innovation in Language Program Direction Award: Racial/social justice

Germán Zárate-Sández
Western Michigan University


Pathways to empower Black and African American students in college-level Spanish classes

Background and overview

When I arrived at my large state university in Michigan five years ago, I was pleased to see a sizeable number of Black and African American students on campus and in the introductory Spanish classes I was hired to direct. Analysis of our program’s strengths and weaknesses, however, revealed that Black and African American students receive lower grades and are less likely to continue studying Spanish at higher levels than other students. As the language program director and an academic dedicated to fostering success for all students, I am determined to investigate and address this reality and to implement necessary changes.

In this application I describe my path to deal with issues of inequity encountered by Black and African American students at my institution. The project consists of three phases: describing the problem at hand, understanding its origin (the current phase of the project), and, finally, taking concrete measures to solve the problem.

Describing the problem

In Spring 2020, I sought permission to compile a database for our Spanish program using students’ official demographic and academic information provided by my institution’s office of institutional research. I ran several descriptive statistics on this dataset to determine the magnitude of the problem.

During academic year 2019-2020, enrollment in the four introductory Spanish courses I direct (Basic Spanish I and II, and Intermediate Spanish I and II) plus the two 3000-level “bridge” courses (Spanish Conversation and Spanish Composition) totaled 1,261 students, of which 209—or 16.6%—self-reported as Black or African American. I am pleased this percentage is above the 12% reported for our institution and the 14.1% for the state of Michigan. Over the last six years, the rate of Black and African American students has remained stable and represents the biggest minority group in our program.                  

A breakdown of enrollment by course, however, reveals that the proportion of Black or African American students in our courses progressively declines in higher-level courses. Graph 3 shows that over the last six years roughly 20% of students enrolled in SPAN 1000 and 1010 were Black and African American, well above university rates. However, percentages for the 2000-level courses declined to the 11-18% range. Proportions for this student group continued to decline in 3000-level courses to figures often below university means and to an alarming six-year low of 6% in the last academic year.

The disadvantage that Black or African American students experience in our program becomes more pronounced when considering academic performance, as evidenced by the final grade value obtained in the course (on a 0-4 scale). The last 6 years show that Black or African American students have consistently received lower grades than their peers in our Spanish program, as depicted by boxplots in Graph 4. An extreme area of concern is academic year 2016/17, when the median (horizontal line inside box) final grade for Black or African American students was an entire grade point lower than the median for all other groups, while the mean grade (blue dot) also trailed substantially behind.

 Inequity in academic performance between Black or African American and other groups becomes increasingly worrisome when data are broken down by course, as shown in Graph 5. At every level, both mean and median grade values are below other groups, with the starkest contrast in the 3000-level courses, where the median final grade value for Black or African American students is 1.5 points below that of White students.

In summary, Black or African American students at my institution begin Spanish education at high rates but are less likely to advance to higher-level courses and more likely to obtain lower final grades than other groups. Also, the grade gap becomes more pronounced at higher-level courses.

Understanding the problem

Issues of advancement and academic performance among Black or African American students are not unique to my institution. Several studies have shown Black students begin second language (L2) education at rates that reflect the general population, at both K-12 and post-secondary levels. However, their participation later declines or vanishes altogether in upper-level courses and they are less likely to major or minor in languages than peers (Charle Poza, 2013; Gatlin, 2013; Moore, 2005). Not surprisingly, low academic performance has been linked to demotivated African American students in language classes (e.g., Moore & English, 1998).

What accounts for lower participation and performance in L2 education among Black and African American students? Previous research shows that the reasons are complex and multifaceted but overwhelmingly tied to systemic and long-standing patterns of exclusion, self-perceived inadequacies to learn languages, lack of culturally-relevant materials in the L2 curriculum, and restricted access by educational gatekeepers who discourage Black students from pursuing language study. For example, Lucas (1995) and Charle Poza (2015) reported that Black college students tended to see little value in studying French or Spanish, viewed themselves as less skilled at language learning than their peers, and experienced high levels of anxiety over the low grades they expected to receive, or actually received, in their language classes. Black students enrolled in Spanish classes at a historically black institution expressed high dissatisfaction with the scant emphasis their classes placed on the Black experience in Spanish-speaking cultures (Davis & Markham, 1991), while 128 Black students at a predominantly white university found L2 classes and materials boring or irrelevant to their African American identity (Moore, 2005). 

I hypothesize that these patterns of exclusion explain poor retention rates and lower academic performance among Black and African American students in my institution. To better understand the problem, I am currently conducting a needs analysis informed by methodologies and findings from previous literature and composed of the following:

  1. Online surveys distributed to all students about their past and current experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations regarding Spanish language education.
  2. Online or paper surveys distributed to all students’ current teachers and other stakeholders involved in forging the path that students have taken in their L2 education, including family members, high school teachers and counselors, and college academic advisors, course coordinators, and administrators.
  3. Follow-up teleconference interviews with individuals—now focusing on Black students or people related to them—from (a) and (b) on major topics that emerged from surveys.
  4. Class ethnographies and observations to assess how interpersonal relationships and classroom dynamics affect L2 Spanish learning for Black and African American students. Since all but one of 25 sections of introductory Spanish are currently being taught online due to COVID-19, I am analyzing 50 hours of recorded classes that I collected in Fall 2019. I still hope to observe and analyze online synchronous sessions in spring 2021 since my institution will continue with mostly online education due to the pandemic.


Methods a-c above have been employed in research projects conducted by others. Techniques in (d), however, represent a departure from studies that limit themselves to indirect descriptions of the issues that Black students face in language programs. As Anya (2020) states, “rare are the studies where the actual language-learning interactions and activities of black students and their instructors are directly observed” (p. 101).

Addressing the problem

The last phase of the project will seek to remedy the disadvantages Black and African American students experience in our introductory Spanish program. As previous research has shown, Black students can thrive in L2 learning when the playing field is leveled (Anya, 2017; Flores & Rosa, 2019; Moore & English, 1998). Based on this premise, this last phase will center around two components:

  • Diversifying instruction. Black and African American students generally do not feel represented in or connected with the Spanish-speaking cultures they learn about in their classes. Afro-descendants make up a large part of Hispanics around the world, yet the Hispanic culture in textbooks and pedagogical materials typically excludes Afro-Latin Americans. To address this, I will use data from the needs analysis and existing resources (Abreu, 2016; Anya et al., 2019; Kennedy, 1987) to embed the curriculum of Basic Spanish II and Intermediate I with pedagogical modules that reflect the Black experience. I will implement these changes in at least six sections in Fall 2021 as a pilot study, assess their effectiveness, and make necessary changes for use in all future sections and extend the model to other courses.
  • Education in diversity equity and inclusion. I will work with the office of diversity and inclusion at my institution to provide workshops for instructors on how to best serve our Black and African American students, since even stakeholders with the best intentions sometimes implement practices that alienate Black students.


Review criteria

  • Relevance. This year has seen high levels of social and racial unrest in our country. Movements such as Black Lives Matters have opened our eyes to the systemic racism faced by Black and African Americans. My initial analysis shows that this type of exclusion and limited access exist in language programs, and this project seeks to help instructors and language program directors address it.
  • Innovation. New pedagogical materials and teacher training practices developed in this project are innovative, timely, and can be used by other programs in the U.S.
  • Replicability. The surveys, interview protocols, training materials, and pedagogical modules developed for this project will be made available through platforms such as the IRIS Digital Repository and our own AAUSC page. I would also like to begin an AAUSC advocacy group to discuss these issues.
  • Impact. 209 Black or African American students enrolled in the first three levels of introductory and bridge Spanish courses in AY 2019-20—a typical number in our program. Though this project is specifically intended to increase retention and improve academic performance among Black or African American students, the pedagogical modules will benefit all students by raising awareness of the positive contributions of Blacks to the cultural fabric of societies worldwide.



Abreu, L. (2016). Awareness of diversity in the Spanish-speaking world among L2 Spanish speakers. Foreign Language Annals, 49(1), 180–190.

Anya, U. (2017). Racialized identities in second language learning: Speaking blackness in Brazil. Routledge.

Anya, U. (2020). African Americans in world language study: The forged path and future directions. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 97–112.

Anya, U., Baralt, M., Gómez, D., Hecheverría, H., Hobbs, W., Robinson, A. (2019). Improving Spanish-language teacher retention and success among Black Spanish-language learners: An HIS-HBCU collaboration. CLASP. Retrieved from

Charle Poza, M. (2013). The beliefs of African American students about foreign language learning. NECTFL Review, 72, 61–77.

Charle Poza, M. (2015). A comparative study of beliefs among elementary- and intermediate-level students at a historically black university. NECTFL Review, 76, 37–49.

Davis, J. D., & Markham, P. L. (1991). Student attitudes toward foreign language study at historically and predominantly Black institutions. Foreign Language Annals, 24(3), 227–237.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2019). Bringing race into second language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 103, 145–151.

Gatlin, N. (2013). Don't forget about us: African-American college students’ newfound perspectives on foreign language motivation, foreign language anxiety, and beliefs about foreign language learning [Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin].

Kennedy, J. (1987). Strategies for including Afro-Latin American culture in the intermediate Spanish class. Hispania, 70, 679–683.

Lucas, R. (1995). The role of beliefs and anxiety in the attrition of African American students in foreign language study [Doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University].

Moore, Z. (2005). African American students’ opinions about foreign language study: An exploratory study of low enrollments at the college level. Foreign Language Annals, 38(2), 191–200.

Moore, Z., & English, M. (1998). Successful teaching strategies: Findings from a case study of middle school African Americans learning Arabic. Foreign Language Annals, 31(3), 347–357.


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