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Educational institutions with world language requirements face increasing student demand to offer Spanish Language for Specific Purposes (SPSP) courses at lower proficiency levels to fulfill language requirements. Language for specific purposes courses are designed to fulfill the communicative needs of students within a specific professional context such as medicine, law, sciences, social work, business, translation and interpretation, among others (Sánchez-López 2013). The focus of these courses is on the integration of language related competencies through connections to other disciplines (Lafford 2012). These traits are very attractive to students who feel they will be able to use their second language in future professional domains. This short-form article discusses the proposal to start offering SPSP courses earlier, before students reach advanced proficiency, and in mixed classes where second language learners and heritage students sit together, to benefit from the specific content.

1. Implementing SPSP Courses at Lower Proficiency Levels

The field of World Languages for the Professions has seen growing development of SPSP courses, particularly in the last decade or so, with groundbreaking studies (e.g., Doyle 2012; Fryer 2012; King de Ramírez 2015; King de Ramírez and Lafford 2018; Long 2014, 2017; Sánchez-López 2014, 2017). These courses have been particularly useful in promoting the integration of language competencies via connections to other disciplines, and we have seen them spread to all the professions: medical and health care, social work, law, science, and technology (Doyle 2012). These days, more and more schools are including these courses in their program offerings. Nevertheless, there remains a need for development of methodology, curricula, pedagogy, and teaching materials to solidify this field (Doyle 2012). Long (2017) calls for the development of a general theoretical model. Other researchers call educators in the field to transform SPSP courses into modules within world language courses to develop transferable skills in demand by employers, such as critical thinking, adaptability, intercultural competence, and collaboration (King de Ramírez and Lafford 2018). These skills would allow the student to thrive in the workplace with adequate professional use of their second language. These proposals will allow the SPSP field to move forward and to train second language learners so they can interact with other individuals of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds in the workplace. SPSP courses can also offer heritage bilinguals the possibility of expanding competencies in their heritage language, so they can manage professional contexts within their native culture more effectively (King de Ramírez and Lafford 2018).

With such sensible endeavors ahead, we (as educators) should ask ourselves if we could/should implement SPSP courses at beginning and intermediate language levels before students [End Page 21] achieve advanced proficiency. We advocate here that practitioners do not need to wait until students reach an advanced level of proficiency in a target language to implement SPSP courses. Our proposal follows the premise from the Redefining Spanish Teaching and Learning Initiative (Pascual y Cabo and Prada 2018) that “it is important for each student to build bridges between Spanish as a subject and their other areas . . . Failing to do so obscures the student’s own perspective on the applicability of ‘language as a skill’ and reduces language learning to a body of content to be learned” (541). We advocate here that these courses can be and should be implemented earlier—at lower proficiency levels.

2. A Course for the Professions: Spanish for Business and Finance

With that objective in mind, we started offering SPN 2160 (Spanish for Business and Finance) at our institution. It is a course designed for students who have successfully completed two Spanish courses (Elementary Spanish I and II). This course provides learners with opportunities to improve their Spanish communication skills for business purposes. To be able to register, students must have completed the elementary Spanish prerequisites, or an equivalent course. It is open to any second language or heritage speaker who needs it to fit into their program of studies, making it a mixed course open to all students. Other courses in the program are closed to heritage speakers.

Students learn business and finance vocabulary necessary to give a formal business presentation. Some of the topics reviewed in class deal with finance and accounting, but students also learn vocabulary from blue-collar professions and terms related to taxes, loans, and the real estate market. Compositions are written in class and students prepare for this assignment by completing the reading activities included in the textbook (see sample topics below). There is a business presentation project as well. For the project, students choose the presentation topic and they work in pairs. They are encouraged to find a topic that closely relates to their professional goals.

Sample topics for the written compositions are:

  1. a. ¿Cómo se han adaptado los comerciales televisivos de los Estados Unidos para dirigirse a un público hispano con relación a los años pasados? Menciona algunos ejemplos. (‘Antes los comerciales’/‘Ahora los comerciales’)

  2. b. Habla de las similitudes y diferencias en la compra y venta de seguros entre personas hispanas y estadounidenses. ¿Cuáles son las pólizas de seguros más comunes en Latinoamérica? (Jarvis and Lebredo 2014: 275)

Sample topics for the oral presentations are:

  1. a. ¿Cómo es el sistema bancario en el mundo hispano?

  2. b. ¿Qué es “Standard and Poor’s” y cuál fue su conclusión acerca de los bancos latinoamericanos?

  3. c. El comercio internacional: ¿cuáles son algunas de las ventajas de los Tratados de Libre Comercio que se mencionan en el libro? (Jarvis and Lebredo 2014: 282)

At the end of the course, students have learned extensive vocabulary and business language that allow them to communicate with customers about processing everyday banking transactions, preparing income tax returns, and filling out basic real state contracts.

The course has a hybrid nature. Hybrid courses are technology-enhanced and use web-based resources to replace face-to-face instructional time. They have been proposed as a solution to [End Page 22] address the needs of mixed classes (see Fairclough and Beaudrie 2016; Henshaw 2016), which is the case in our institution. There are some advantages related to online individual tasks. First, there is self-pacing. Students take the time they need to do the activities. Then, there is preparedness, immediate feedback and easy access as soon as students register on the online platform. There is also less anxiety as compared to in-class activities in which an immediate response is expected from the students. Hybrid courses provide learners with abundant written input and output opportunities that are so essential for language acquisition (Henshaw 2016).

Grades for this course are based on performance in five areas (class participation, homework, compositions, presentation, and unit exams); these are the same performance criteria as those in the traditional course at the same proficiency level not oriented towards the professions. This traditional course covers general topics such as gender equality, family, religion, and marriage. Both courses have the exact same structure, including exam formatting. In addition, the same rubrics are used to grade assignments, and both cover the same grammatical structures to allow for comparison.

3. A Comparison with a Traditional Hybrid course (not SPSP) at the Same Proficiency Level

For this project we compared students enrolled in the Spanish for the Professions course (SPSP) (n = 44) with a group of students (n = 42) enrolled in the traditional course. Again, the courses had identical components (class participation, homework, compositions, an oral presentation project and unit exams); they differed only as to content matter. All participants were undergraduate students with an average age of 19.5 years. We undertook statistical analyses to compare both courses (SPSP/Traditional) and analyze variance as to student performance. We undertook analyses of variance (ANOVAS) with course type (SPSP, traditional) as a between-subjects variable, and assessment type (compositions, oral presentation, unit exams, online homework) as within-subjects variable. The dependent variable was student performance in each class component.

Figure 1. SPSP vs. traditional course by assessment type
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Figure 1.

SPSP vs. traditional course by assessment type

The results are presented in Figure 1 below. These results indicated that overall, students enrolled in the traditional topics’ course outperformed the one in the SPSP group (83% versus 77%). Taking a closer look at the numbers, the online homework was the component that brought about the biggest difference between the groups (88% versus 52%). Does this finding [End Page 23] suggest that we should wait to implement SPSP courses at the advanced level? Not necessarily. It is important to consider here that the SPSP online platform was more unstable, technologically speaking. Students enrolled in the SPSP course experienced more glitches than the students enrolled in the traditional course, whose platform from a different software company was more user-friendly and stable. Unfortunately, this is a common problem with SPSP courses. It has been well documented by Sanchez and colleagues (2017) when they bring to light the fact that there is scarce material to offer Language for the Professions and Specific Purposes courses at any level, and particularly, at the basic levels. We need to understand the unique challenge that the lack of adequate materials imposes on the implementation of SPSP courses, and the effect it can have in interpreting data about course effectiveness. Deficient materials can unequivocally obscure students’ performance in SPSP courses.

A second important finding indicated that students enrolled in the SPSP course outperformed students in the traditional topics’ course in the oral presentation component (91% versus 86%). We take this to mean that SPSP courses are beneficial for students at the intermediate level. Recall that the presentation topics relate to students’ professional goals. Therefore, students perceive SPSP topics as ‘authentic’ and ‘relevant.’ Also, they were highly motivated to enhance their oral skills to navigate the professional world in a second language. The SPSP course engaged our students in ‘applied learning.’ That is, they had to apply technical terminology acquired through the semester as part of all course projects. Moreover, these students demonstrated that they were able to make clear connections between the skills acquired and how those same skills could be applied in professional settings. This is one of the main ideas proposed by King de Ramírez and Lafford (2018), to move the field of SPSP forward with practical tasks and transferable skills in demand by employers in diverse fields, including—but not limited to—critical thinking, intercultural sensitivity, and collaboration.

Figure 2. L2s vs. HSs performance by course type and assessment
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Figure 2.

L2s vs. HSs performance by course type and assessment

4. Benefits for Spanish Heritage Bilinguals Enrolled in the SPSP Course

The performance of Spanish heritage bilinguals (HSs) is also part of this analysis. It was compared with the performance of second language learners (L2) in both courses (SPSP and traditional). The results are presented in Figure 2 below, and they showed that HSs performance [End Page 24] in the online homework was considerably low in both courses; however, they did better in the SPSP course than in the traditional course (42% versus 31%). Similarly, HSs performed better than the L2 learners in the unit exams in the SPSP course (81% versus 72%).

In general, it seems that the SPSP format is beneficial for HS bilinguals, but the online component is seen as having a negative effect on HSs’ performance. Henshaw (2016) has pointed out that there is a scarcity of computer-delivered materials that meet the needs of HS learners (286). Therefore, it is not surprising that HSs do not perform at high levels in this component. Some of the reasons for their low performance could also include the online exercises’ format, which has a strong metalinguistic focus (i.e., grammatical activities that emphasize on the use of grammatical forms without necessarily emphasizing meaning). Studies on grammatical development in the classroom have found that, even when HSs benefit from form-focused grammar instruction, they don’t do well on tasks that emphasize metalinguistic knowledge (Beaudrie 2009; Carreira 2016; Fairclough 2016; Montrul and Bowles 2009; Potowski et al. 2009). Another possible reason is that the course content emphasizes grammatical structures that are stable in HS grammars, such as the preterit and imperfect contrast; therefore, HSs did not engage in the practice provided by the online component. We would like to stress that hybrid courses alone do not necessarily promote language development. Spanish heritage bilinguals can continue to improve their language proficiency in hybrid courses if these courses integrate appropriate academic and professional discourse variance to promote HS literacy needs.

5. Some Pedagogical Implications and Concluding Remarks

Students enrolled in the SPSP course benefited from technical vocabulary in the oral format (presentation component seemed to enhance oral skills). For this oral project, the second language learners and heritage speakers worked together to develop an in-class oral presentation. It is possible that heritage speaker oral fluency in Spanish combined with the formal instruction experienced by second language learners may have facilitated oral skill growth in all students involved. However, in the case of the online homework component, students in the traditional course outperformed their SPSP counterparts. Let’s recall that in the SPSP course, the vocabulary was more challenging, more technically-oriented towards the business world (as this is a course for the professions). For the online homework, students worked independently, not in pairs. They could not benefit from turn taking and collaborating as in the oral presentation project. In all, both groups of students, L2 and HSs, benefited from the mixed course.

Another note brings to light benefits of SPSP courses for heritage students. Heritage bilingualism encompasses bilinguals from a broad range of linguistic proficiencies. Heritage speakers of lower proficiency who are enrolled in basic SPSP courses will be able to fulfill their language requirement by taking this class. We want to extend the implications of these results to this population. Heritage speakers see immediate results when they perceive themselves as being functional in their heritage language. Collaborating with L2 learners and non-heritage speakers may also lead to enhanced confidence and motivation on their part.

Finally, the general findings of these study can also be framed within Multiliteracies Pedagogy (Cope and Kalantzis 2015). This approach calls for the development of literacy (in the L2) through multilingual and multimodal opportunities. Hybrid-SPSP courses are beneficial for L2 learners and heritage language bilinguals alike, since technology-enhanced courses grant learners access to different text modalities. They also provide them with multilingual opportunities to construct and negotiate meaning beyond the classroom to meet professional goals. Still, there remains a need for development of methodology, curricula, pedagogy, and teaching materials to solidify the field of LSP courses in US higher education (Doyle 2012). Going back to our original [End Page 25] question of whether SPSP courses should be implemented before students are at the advanced level, our results show that the benefits of implementing these courses outweigh the challenges.

In conclusion, in an inclusive SPSP course, students with different linguistic trajectories (second language/heritage speaker) are working together towards the same goal, which is learning complex vocabulary related to their professions. Not waiting to offer SPSP courses at the advanced level of proficiency opens multiple possibilities for students to collaborate with others who are bridging language content and professional applicability. It presents all students with the same task: learning challenging vocabulary for the real world of the professions.

Anel Brandl
Florida State University
Estrella Rodríguez
Florida State University


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