Fewer U.S. Latinos Are Speaking Spanish

June 3, 2015 /



Until she was about six years old, my daughter, Ramona, didn’t know I could speak English.

In our family version of dual immersion, my wife spoke to Ramona only in English, and I spoke to her only in Spanish for the first several years of her life. The goal was to raise her to be bilingual.

It was a great idea, especially considering the many studies that show children exposed to more than one language at home reap many benefits.

But one day, I slipped.

Time has faded the details, but as Ramona recalls it, she asked me something, and for the first time, I responded in English. She was surprised that I even knew the language.

But from then on, I spoke to Ramona, now 23 years old, more and more in English. As a result, our dual-immersion project ultimately failed. The reason: I found it increasingly difficult to speak only Spanish while immersed in a world that spoke mostly English.

Latinos in the U.S. have had a similar experience, according to a new report issued by the respected Pew Hispanic Center based in Washington. Analyzing 2013 data collected by the Census Bureau, Pew researchers found that 68 percent of Latinos age five and over spoke English well compared to 59 percent in 2000. At the same time, the percentage of Hispanics who spoke Spanish at home decreased from 78 percent to 73 percent.

But what about the end-times talk-radio scenarios that paint a picture of a nation ripped apart by immigrants who speak so many different languages, people can no longer communicate with one another?

They’re wrong.

In my experience as a reporter and columnist writing about ethnicity, immigration and language for many years, these scenarios are almost always based on unreliable anecdotal evidence. Someone hears two guys speaking Spanish at the mall and concludes the Southwest U.S. will become a separate Hispanic nation.

The reality is that when immigrants move to a country where one language dominates, they almost always wind up speaking that language. Studies show that if it doesn’t happen the first generation, then certainly in the second or third.

The forces of assimilation are simply too strong. And immigrants in the U.S. are smart enough to know that English is the language of educational and economic success.

The Pew report includes several other findings indicating that Latino immigrants are assimilating in much the same fashion as newcomers from other countries did in centuries past:

  • From 2000 to 2013, the Hispanic population grew by 53 percent to about 54 million, but contrary to the stereotype, that increase came mostly from U.S. births, not new immigrants. In fact, Pew found that those born in the U.S. outnumbered those who came from other countries by 2-to-1 in 2013.
  • While 95% of foreign-born Hispanics spoke Spanish at home, only 60% of those born in the U.S. did so.

That pattern fits my family’s experience. While my Mexican-born grandfather spoke mostly Spanish and his children are all bilingual, most of their offspring can no longer speak the language of their ancestors. I’m an exception because I grew up in my grandpa’s household.

But that’s the language pattern for immigrants throughout U.S. history, and it’s the pattern for Latinos as their roots in America grow deeper.

The full Pew report is available online at http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/05/12/english-proficiency-on-the-rise-among-latinos/

Leonel Martínez is a regular contributor to the South Kern Sol and can be reached at columnista1@gmail.com.