“The Pronouns EXIST!”: Linguistic Existence in the Borderlands as a U.S. Non-Binary Adolescent Heritage Learner of Spanish


  • Julia Donnelly Spiegelman University of Massachusetts Boston


Borderlands, heritage language learners, LGBTQ+, non-binary language learners, Spanish language education, pronouns


Debates about teaching inclusive Spanish are frequently simplified into a false binary, in which linguistic evolutions advocated by trans and queer communities are framed as opposite to the linguistic conservativism of Spanish-speaking communities in the United States. However, non-binary heritage learners of Spanish live, learn, and speak in Spanish, in both school and family contexts. For these individuals, gender-neutral language implicates not only recognition of their individual identity, but also access to community and belonging. Grounded in Anzaldúa’s (1987) conceptualization of the borderlands, this paper presents the qualitative case study of a non-binary, adolescent heritage learner of Spanish working to affirm their existence within the binary paradigms of boy/girl and native/non-native Spanish speaker. Thematic analysis of interview, focus group, and survey data reveals multiple contextual forces at play in the student’s understanding of who and what has the right to “exist” in Spanish. These include ideologies such as native speakerism and linguistic prescriptivism, as well as local factors such as positioning as a student/non-expert and access to affirming peer community. The study illustrates the stakes of language and representation for trans, non-binary, and heritage learners and offers implications for researchers and language educators.

Author Biography

Julia Donnelly Spiegelman, University of Massachusetts Boston

JULIA DONNELLY SPIEGELMAN (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at University of Massachusetts Boston with an MA from Middlebury College. Julia’s research investigates questions of power, ideology, and identity in world language classroom settings, with a focus on addressing inequity based on race, gender, and sexuality. Julia’s work has been published in Applied Linguistics, L2 Journal, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, and The French Review. As a researcher, teacher, and anti-bias teacher educator, Julia works to build language learning environments where all students can learn and thrive.