K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Author’s note

In schools around the country, Hispanic English speakers are incorrectly placed into ESL classes when they do not in fact speak Spanish. This diagnosis is sometimes done based on their accent or occasionally their last names! Some students will try to stay in these classes as a means of learning Spanish from their peers. This exercise demonstrates that it can be difficult to distinguish between a person whose first language is Spanish and a person whose first language is English just by listening to linguistic patterns.

Learn more

Related pages

  • African American English: In this activity, students learn about the history of African American English and the meaning of dialect and linguistic patterns. Students watch a video about African American English and analyze the dialect's linguistic patterns.
  • Language change in North Carolina's cities: In this activity, students view a video about the changing dialects of North Carolina's urban areas and then respond to a series of questions.
  • Outer Banks English: In this lesson plan, students view a video about the dialect of North Carolina's Outer Banks and develop an understanding of linguistic patterns.

Related topics


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Learning outcomes

  • Students will investigate the role of the emerging Spanish-speaking population in North Carolina, including the cultural and linguistic impact.
  • Students will understand that:
    • Spanish has been spoken in the US longer than English has.
    • Spanish is not a threat to English as the most common language.
    • Spanish adds to the rich cultural and linguistic landscape of North Carolina.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

One hour

Materials needed


There is no question that Spanish is becoming increasingly important in North Carolina. Over the past decade in North Carolina, the population of people of Spanish-speaking heritage has dramatically increased. From 1990 to 2000, the Hispanic population in North Carolina increased from about 75,000 to 375,000. This increase, 397%, is substantially larger than the 58% average increase for the United States as a whole. North Carolina has one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the country, and as of 2008 has the largest percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers of any state, thus making Spanish an important part of North Carolina’s linguistic makeup.

With increased size come increased visibility and cultural influence — but also more widespread and entrenched stereotypes. Most stereotypes are not accurate and assumptions about Spanish speakers are also inaccurate.

Some popular misconceptions:

  • Myth #1: Spanish is new in the United States.
    Reality: The Spanish began to explore North America in 1492, and their first permanent settlement was St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565. The Spanish also explored much of the American Southwest and West (including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Oregon), beginning as early as 1540. In fact, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established in 1605, two years before the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.
  • Myth #2: Spanish is a threat to English.
    Reality: Many people believe that Spanish threatens English’s role as the most prominent language in the United States. These same concerns have been around for centuries. The “Founding Fathers” of the United States thought that German would likely supplant English as an official language. Therefore, they determined that there should be no official language of the United States. To this day, the United States has no official language. While Spanish has certainly become more prevalent in society, researchers have observed that speakers in the second generation born in the United States speak almost exclusively English and often have very limited, if any, Spanish ability.
  • Myth #3: People who sound like they have a “Spanish accent” are Spanish-speakers who have not yet mastered English.
    Reality: Oftentimes, we hear people speak with what we classify as a “Spanish accent.” Linguists who have studied this variety of language in Arizona and California have named it Chicano English. People of Spanish-speaking descent in North Carolina seem to prefer the term Hispanic English to Chicano English. Regardless of the name, this language variety is a dialect of English that people of Hispanic heritage speak. Many speakers of Hispanic English do not speak much or any Spanish. They speak English as a first language but have noticeable pronunciation features.


  1. Define dialect. (See “Critical vocabulary” below.)
  2. Share background information, including the popular myths, with students.
  3. Have students listen to the eight speakers on the “Is this speaker bilingual or not?” sound clip. All speakers are of Hispanic heritage and some speak both Spanish and Hispanic English while others speak only Hispanic English. Ask students to try to determine which speakers are bilingual and which speakers are monolingual. Answer choices are listed on the “Is this speaker bilingual or not?” worksheet. As students give their responses, have them try to describe what led them to their decisions.

    Please upgrade your Flash Player and/or enable JavaScript in your browser to listen to this audio file.

    Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

    This exercise is meant to be difficult for students. In fact, many students will just have to guess at their answers. This is because there are many similarities between the speech of Hispanic ESL speakers and native English speakers who speak Hispanic English. Remind students that they should get four answers correct just by guessing. If they get more than two wrong, they are having a hard time telling the difference between a speaker whose first language is Spanish and a speaker whose first language is English.

    Most of us think we can tell the difference between these groups of people, but this exercise demonstrates that it is extremely difficult to do so consistently. Thus, much of the time when we assume a speaker is learning English as a second language, we may in fact be wrong. Hispanic English is a dialect of English. It is also sometimes referred to as “Chicano English.” It is well worth the time to play the samples a second time after this discussion so that students can listen closely and come to realize that there is, in fact, very little, if anything, that they can use to effectively differentiate between monolingual and bilingual speakers.

You must have javascript and Flash Player to play this video.

Video courtesy of North Carolina State University / North Carolina Language and Life Project. About the video
Download video (Right-click or option-click)

  1. Show the video clip and have students write answers to, and then discuss, the following questions:
    • What is taking place with the use of Spanish in North Carolina?
    • How do the people in the video view Spanish? How do they view English?
    • Is it important for English speakers to learn some Spanish? Why or why not?
    • What do you think will happen to the Spanish language in North Carolina? Why?


Assess by completion of worksheet, answers to video questions, and participation in discussion.

Critical vocabulary

form of language spoken by a group of people from the same regional or cultural background. Everyone speaks a dialect, even though some dialects are more noticeable than others.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 8

        • 8.C.1 Understand how different cultures influenced North Carolina and the United States. 8.C.1.1 Explain how exploration and colonization influenced Africa, Europe and the Americas (e.g. Columbian exchange, slavery and the decline of the American Indian populations)....

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 8

  • Goal 8: The learner will evaluate the impact of demographic, economic, technological, social, and political developments in North Carolina since the 1970's.
    • Objective 8.01: Describe the changing demographics in North Carolina and analyze their significance for North Carolina's society and economy.
    • Objective 8.04: Assess the importance of regional diversity on the development of economic, social, and political institutions in North Carolina.
  • Goal 9: The learner will explore examples of and opportunities for active citizenship, past and present, at the local and state levels.
    • Objective 9.01: Describe contemporary political, economic, and social issues at the state and local levels and evaluate their impact on the community.