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How losing language can lead to cultural disconnection

How losing language can lead to cultural disconnection

Languages fascinate me. I’ve written about the side effects of speaking more than one language and today I explore Spanish fluency loss among Latinos in the U.S. According to a Pew Research study, a growing number of Latinos are being raised in households where only English is spoken. This means that in the decades to come more and more Latinos will lose their Spanish-speaking abilities. This topic is interesting because it hits close to home. I have friends and relatives that are part of this linguistic shift taking place across the U.S. Furthermore, language, specifically Spanish, is important to me because it means a lot more than using it for the sake of communication. Spanish fluency is about culture, identity and relationships. 

The numbers of Spanish speakers in the U.S. is projected to grow to 40M in 2020 but the share of Spanish speaking Hispanics is estimated to decrease from 75% to 66%.
— U.S. Census Bureau

PARENTAL & EDUCATIONAL IMPACT

Learning to speak Spanish starts at home, with the parents. If parents speak Spanish to one another and communicate in this language to a child, the child will naturally learn. But in most Hispanic homes, it’s a bit more complex than that. Some Spanish-speaking couples choose to communicate only in English. In other situations, one partner might speak Spanish while the other doesn’t. In different cases, the child might be in the care of family relatives who only speak Spanish, thus teaching the child. Regardless of circumstance, the attitude of parents is a key factor in determining whether or not kids will speak Spanish or any language for that matter. 

With my 8 year old nephew, Christian, his mother and my brother decided to communicate with him only in Spanish and let English match his Spanish level when he entered school. The majority of the people he knows spoke to him in Spanish resulting in him attaining Spanish fluency (including reading and writing). He was lucky enough to live in a city with a bilingual school program that allowed him to have classes in both Spanish and English. When he was done with 1st grade, I noticed that he shifted from talking to his little friends in Spanish to English. Worried that his excellent Spanish ability might suffer, I forced him countless times to read books and write me letters in Spanish. He hated it. It was time away from playing outside or with his tablet. But I know he will thank me later. Now, his school classes have shifted exclusively to English. While he uses Spanish at home with parents, grandparents and other relatives, I noticed something odd the last time we spoke on the phone. I want him to know and retain the language well so we always speak Spanish to each other. I even write postcards to him in Spanish, to drive the point home. But I was surprised to notice that he started talking to me in English… I immediately steered the conversation back to Spanish but it amazed me how easily the switch happened. After all, I’ve only been away for 6 months! 

Educational systems have a huge impact on Spanish loss. I know of countless relatives and family friends whose kids spoke only Spanish but at age 6 or 7 completely stopped speaking it and forgot the language. The timing coincides with starting school. I remember this specific occasion in which we visited an acquaintance of my mother’s. This lady had two kids and her 6 year old son kept speaking English to her but she barely understood what he said. I asked him something in Spanish and he gave me a blank look. Astounded, I asked his mother what was going on. Only a few months back, the same little boy could speak Spanish perfectly. She told me that he had started 1st grade a few months back and the shift to English was immediate. And to boot, it seemed he’d forgotten Spanish completely. This story of Spanish fluency loss is a common theme among a plethora of Latinos. Some states are sensible enough to implement bilingual education programs in districts with large amounts of Hispanics but the vast majority doesn’t. 

[…] the biggest story is that Spanish is being lost at the same time that new immigration continues to make the language a viable, visible and important language in the U.S.
— Phillip M. Carter, Professor of Linguistics at Florida International University

THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIETY AND POPULAR CULTURE

Unless parents or caretakers take measures to ensure their kids will retain Spanish, it’s safe to assume that they will lose it once they enter school. Perhaps the reason why children become monolingual so quickly after entering the school setting is because they learn that English is the language that truly matters. All of a sudden they find themselves in classrooms where teachers deliver lessons in English. The homework and projects are in English. And their classmates only speak English to each other. The notion is further reinforced by the media they consume in the form of music, movies, video games and so on. There are even friends and relatives that were made to feel ashamed for speaking Spanish in school. Simply put, American society doesn’t necessarily encourage bilingualism. It wasn’t long ago that America was fully against it claiming it would result in a loss of English…

I find Spanish loss among Latinos to be a sad phenomenon. We know that being bilingual leads to improved memory, enhanced critical thinking skills and expanded horizons. And to lose it? It’s a shame. Add to this the inability to communicate with relatives. How can relationships be established and fostered when neither person knows what the other is saying? Spanish is now also an asset in the U.S. as some businesses seek out employees that are bilingual. It’s important to note that based on immigration patterns from the past, native languages are usually lost. Such was the case with Germans, Italians and Asian communities. But the thing is that Spanish is highly relevant today. As Phillip M. Carter, Professor of Linguistics at Florida International University, says, “[…] the biggest story is that Spanish is being lost at the same time that new immigration continues to make the language a viable, visible and important language in the U.S.”  

I have cousins and relatives that speak little to no Spanish and for a long time it was hard for me not to judge a little bit. I couldn’t fathom why they didn’t speak Spanish if their parents are fluent. It seemed to me like a waste of a valuable resource. But now I have replaced that judgment with understanding and sympathy for their circumstances. Perhaps they lost the language when they went to school. Maybe they were ashamed for speaking it. Or maybe they never learned it. Regardless, they are not any less based on their monolingualism. 

IS SPANISH A REQUISITE TO BE LATIN@?

While researching this topic, I came across various articles on Latinos seeking to reconnect and strengthen their cultural ties by learning Spanish fluently. Other articles mentioned feelings of shame and inadequacy for the inability to speak the language to family members and relatives. I learned that for some non-Spanish speaking Latinos, the lack of the language represents a barrier between them and the culture. But at the end of the day, Spanish fluency is not necessary or a requisite to be ‘Latino enough.’ What truly matters are the values, customs and lifestyle promoted by Latino culture. One caveat is that Spanish fluency provides deeper access and a richer appreciation for the history, traditions and overall culture. Knowing Spanish can lead to cultivating a deeper cultural understanding and pride for one’s background.

Were you raised in a household that insisted you speak Spanish or another language? Do you speak it today? If not, do you have any complexes about it? 

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