Claudia Matachana

Breaking Down Linguistic Barriers through Research

Claudia Matachana, a UMass Amherst PhD student in Hispanic linguistics, researches beliefs and discrimination related to language as experienced by young Puerto Rican Spanish speakers.

Growing up in Asturias, Spain, Claudia Matachana spoke the country’s traditional form of Spanish as well as Asturian, a minoritized language. Though she didn’t understand the complex social forces at play as a child, Matachana realized early on that other people make assumptions about one’s background and worth based on the language they speak.

“Language is the first thing, apart from your physical appearance, that people perceive about you,” she says. “I’ve long been fascinated by the power of language to build bridges through communication, but also to construct barriers between certain social groups.”

After earning a BA in Spanish philology and an MA in teaching Spanish as a foreign language from the University of Oviedo (Universidad de Oviedo), Matachana came to UMass Amherst as an exchange student in the fall of 2018. Since then, she has worked at the university as a teaching assistant and has researched language ideology and linguistic discrimination. Now a PhD student in UMass’s Spanish and Portuguese Studies department, concentrating in Hispanic linguistics, she is working on a dissertation about the experiences of Puerto Rican Spanish speakers.  

Matachana conducts her research in the nearby city of Holyoke, MA, where over half of the residents are Hispanic, with the vast majority of Puerto Rican heritage. With the aid of a UMass undergraduate student, who is herself a native speaker of Puerto Rican Spanish, Matachana holds individual sociolinguistic interviews with teenage Puerto Rican Spanish speakers to learn about their beliefs and experiences around language, especially in school settings. She also plans to hold larger focus groups to dig deeper into these topics. The research is supported by a competitive National Science Foundation Linguistics Program–Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement grant.

“When a language variety, like Puerto Rican Spanish, is stigmatized, normally it wouldn’t be present in a school. I’m interested in whether teenagers who speak this variety at home maintain its regional linguistic features while at school,” Matachana explains. “I also look at the linguistic ideologies or discrimination that they have encountered in the classroom and in the community, and how this affects their educational experiences, their own ideologies and practices around their Spanish, and their self-esteem and identity."

I’ve long been fascinated by the power of language to build bridges through communication, but also to construct barriers between certain social groups.

Claudia Matachana, PhD student

Matachana stresses that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ Spanish or ‘bad’ Spanish from a linguistic point of view. Such beliefs are based on ideological processes related to power, which are applied to decide something is ‘correct' or 'incorrect.’ Yet, in the interviews with Holyoke youth, Matachana finds evidence of pervasive beliefs that the “correct” form of the language is the Spanish spoken in Spain.

“Most of the participants feel that Puerto Rican Spanish is not represented in the classroom, and they are learning things that don’t relate to them," she recounts. “In some cases, this has caused them to stop studying or speaking Spanish in school at all. Some people have told me about traumatic experiences, such as being punished for speaking Puerto Rican Spanish in school or failing a test because they used words that are from Puerto Rican Spanish and not the variety they are taught in school.”

Ultimately, says Matachana, the findings from her study may shed light on language ideologies and linguistic discrimination related to any minoritized language.  

“Understanding the ideological process behind language variation helps us understand the sociological process that happens in minoritized communities,” she says.

Throughout her research, Matachana has been moved by the stories of “resistance and resilience” she’s heard from young people in response to the discrimination they’ve encountered. In the future, she hopes that her research may influence the way Spanish is taught in schools, as well as how teachers interact with speakers of different dialectical varieties.  

Matachana's advisor, Meghan Armstrong, graduate program director and associate professor of Hispanic linguistics, said, "Claudia's dissertation project provides a sorely needed look into the lived experiences of heritage speakers of Spanish in our area, specifically of Puerto Rican background. Her work confirms the ways students in her study have encountered linguistic discrimination in the classroom, and the effects of these encounters on their educational trajectories. In addition, the dissertation documents which regional features are most commonly used by study participants. All of this has very real, practical, applications for Spanish teachers in our region, and I hope her findings will be disseminated widely."

Matachana expects to graduate from UMass Amherst in the summer of 2024 and has already secured a position as an assistant professor of Spanish at Bentley University in Waltham, MA.

As an international student at UMass, Matachana has found abundant resources and a robust support system at the Graduate School.  

“I feel that my ideas are heard here, and I’m respected as a graduate student,” she says. “This is an amazing place where I can grow and develop as a researcher and a person.”


This story was originally published in February 2024.