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Is California Losing Its Ability to Hablar Español?
Our State’s Original Language Is in Decline and It’s Up to California Save It
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How are Californians going to save Spanish?

Yes, I know that a call to preserve the Spanish language might seem ludicrous in a state whose very name comes from a Spanish romance novel. Nearly half of us are either from the Spanish-speaking world, or trace our heritage there. We constantly hear Spanish—in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and in our media; an estimated 38 percent of Californians speak Spanish (the second highest percentage after New Mexico). In the U.S. more than 37 million people now speak Spanish, up from 11 million in 1980.

And yes, my question about saving Spanish may seem daft now, as America’s deranged politics pit Trumpian xenophobia, with its fear of being overrun by foreigners and their languages, against liberal triumphalism about growing diversity.

But—and I speak to that small, hardy tribe of Americans who still prefer to be ruled by facts and not fears—the realities of immigration, education, and language acquisition put the lie to the notion that Spanish has nowhere to go but up. To the contrary, there are clear signs that the Spanish language has already begun its decline. Which is why Californians, who have long benefited from our state’s bilingualism, should think now about how we are going to preserve it.

Spanish is confronting what might be called the “Three Generation Death” law of non-English languages here. German, Italian, and Polish all but disappeared after three generations—a first, immigrant generation that learned some English, a second, U.S.-born bilingual generation that lost its proficiency in the non-English language over time, and a third generation that grew up speaking English only, and knew the old language only by studying it.

It’s possible that Spanish in 21st century California may prove to be a little more durable, given the undeniable cultural power of the language and the geographic (and now digital) proximity of the Spanish-speaking world. But it’s far more likely that Spanish will simply become the latest and largest tombstone in the language graveyard that is America.

Census statistics and Pew Research Center analysis tell the tale. While nearly 80 percent of all people who identify as Hispanic (and are age 5 and older) spoke Spanish in the previous decade, that number is expected to fall to about two-thirds by 2020. While 25 percent of Hispanics spoke only English at home in 2010, that figure is estimated to reach 34 percent in 2020. Here in California, the trend is most evident in our schools, where the numbers of English-language learners who speak Spanish has fallen to 1.1 million, from nearly 1.4 million a decade ago.

Spanish’s decline is likely to accelerate even as the percentage of people who trace their heritage to the Spanish-language world accelerates. To a great extent, this reflects the law of the three generations. While 61 percent of first-generation Latino arrivals to this country are Spanish-dominant and 33 percent are bilingual, some 69 percent of third-generation Latinos are English-dominant, and 29 percent are bilingual.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Bilingual Education, Hispanics, Immigration 
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  1. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    “Ability to hablar”?

    One wonders about the habilidad of the author de hablar español himself. Considering the fluidity of the border at present it seems unlikely that Spanish will go extinct there in the near future. And as the hispanohablante fraction of the “hispanic” population has dropped, so that population itself has risen.

    But it seems that Mexicans and others are assimilating, which is good news for all concerned.

    • Replies: @Kyle a
  2. MarkinLA says:

    Why do we want to save Spanish? Having Spanish TV and radio stations go out of business is fine with me. However, I see no evidence of that happening.

    • Replies: @Jim Bob Lassiter
  3. I don’t see this “problem” in the California i live in……IF anything Spanish has become far more prevalent…..I have friends whose fathers REFUSE to speak English. They feel it’s beneath them. And have a saying that loosely translates into “English is the language of the dogs” …. admittedly these are older guys. Also, speaking Spanish seems to have become all the rage among the millennial’s i interact with.

    So I’m not sure what the author is talking about…..

    • Agree: RadicalCenter
    • Replies: @fish
    , @Felipe Pena
  4. Kyle a says:

    Assimilating huh? Your confirmation of an alternate universe. I’m guessing you reside in remote local in northeast Wyoming.

  5. fish says:

    So I’m not sure what the author is talking about…..

    Just more of the usual “pearl clutching” from the media!

  6. TheJester says:

    My wife’s Swedish relatives had a slightly different story. Her fraternal grandparents immigrated from Sweden in the early 20th Century. Wanting to become Americans and wanting their children to integrate as quickly as possible, they forbade their children learning Swedish with its sing-song accent … the sure sign of being an immigrant. Hence, the children’s experience was to completely lose knowledge of Swedish in the second generation. This was intentional. (My wife’s father later took Swedish in college; he flunked the course!)

    It was an immigrant story for the ages. The grandfather was a lumberjack; the grandmother was a servant. Both of their sons earned Phds. The clan got together to send their most promising to Yale. His name was John Bertrand Johnson, who went to work at Bell Labs and discovered what is still called “Johnson Noise” … background thermal noise that is intrinsic to all resistors.

    The point is that these immigrants did not want to retain their Swedish language, identity, and ethnicity. They wanted to become Americans and integrate into the American Experience as quickly as possible.

    Just think what this country would be like if the Swedish, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants of the latter 19th Century and early 20th Century had advocated and lived in a society of vibrant diversity. The Tower of Babel comes to mind.

    • Replies: @interesting
    , @SF
  7. syonredux says:

    Greater integration of families is another factor; more than a quarter of Latino babies have a non-Latino parent.

    Interesting. So if an Anglo has a baby with a “Latino,” the baby will be “Latino.” Further reason for Anglos to avoid marrying Hispanics, as the resulting offspring will augment the Hispanic share of the population.

    Demography is destiny.

    • Replies: @Dan Hayes
    , @MarkinLA
  8. jtgw says:

    Somewhat disingenuous argument. Spanish is California’s heritage language in the way Dutch is New York’s heritage language, i.e. while it happens to have been the language of the original colonists, it was long ago displaced by English. The Spanish-speaking community there today has no historical connection to the place, having immigrated or descended from immigrants from other places further south.

    • Replies: @fred c dobbs
  9. @TheJester

    “they forbade their children learning Swedish with its sing-song accent”

    My grandmothers mother spoke Slavic and she started speaking it as well to which her mother said “no no Marie, we are Americans now and Americans speak English”

    It used to drive my grandma crazy when she would hear people who obviously had been in the country for years NOT speaking English.

    But back then people actually wanted to be Americans……NOT hyphenated Americans

    • Replies: @RadicalCenter
  10. zyezek says:

    And this is bad because…?

    Immigrant populations assimilating into the host country is supposed to be a GOOD thing, especially for the USA. In this case, it means we have some cause for modest optimism that a reduction in near- to mid-term immigration & the fullness of time will result in America completely absorbing Spanish-speaking immigrants by mid-century like it did German, etc. ones in previous generations. That’s actually good for all the real people involved. The grandchildren of the newcomers become indistinguishable from other Americans (with all the social implications that has), and it means all the destructive stresses this latest immigration wave has put on our society are on pace to abate rather than get even worse. We should encourage this trend, not try to fight it out as part of some idiot short-term political strategy or nostalgia.

  11. California elites want their cheaper, reliably Democrat Party supporting (or not engaged, non-voting) underclass. Making sure their peasants keep speaking Spanish helps keep them separate and limited.
    Elites tend not to consciously, much less openly, admit how they operate to maintain their own status at the expense of others.
    Am I just cynical?

  12. Dan Hayes says:

    I believe that it is a truism that children will speak the language of their mothers. So that a Latina mother’s children will wind up with Spanish as their first language. I will admit that a child’s language may change when they are introduced into a different environment (school, schoolmates, etc). Never to be forgotten is the fact that a child can almost effortlessly pick up another language up to about 12 year’s of age (for example just by associating with other language-speakers in the school or school-yard environment).

  13. Marcus says:

    What about Russian? In your neck of the woods there’s even a “Russian River.” Mr Matthews can request Putin send a cultural exchange team to revive the motherland tongue.

  14. @interesting

    I think you mean Slovak, which one of my grandmothers also spoke.

    She likewise told her children not to speak Slovak, and to speak only English to prove they were loyal Americans. What a novel concept.

  15. @thisisaknife

    You’re exactly right. But I’d note that in large swathes of California and Texas, it will eventually not be at all “limiting” to speak fluent Spanish and little English.

    Unfortunately, I see the day coming where even secondary education and federal, state, and local government business in much of TX and CA will be primarily in Spanish, and available in Spanish (including in civil court cases, government contracting, etc.) upon demand. It is people who don’t speak Spanish who will be at a disadvantage and ultimately disqualified in many contexts.

    Same will likely be true, in time, with medicine and other professions.

    Asian and other non-Hispanic immigrants to CA and TX will learn Spanish to fit in, not English. Look for these States as a whole to more closely resemble Los Angeles (God help us). This is a terrible development, to be resisted, but here it comes on current trends.

    We were quite late in electing Trump, but let’s hope he can at least do some damage control with legal and illegal immigration alike — and slow down this train to a balkanized, mistrustful, less prosperous, more dangerous, more corrupt Second World society.

    • Replies: @thisisaknife
  16. @jtgw

    Finally someone f*****g gets it!!

    At the time of the Mexican American War, there were only a few thousand “Mexicans” in California. None at all in NV and AZ. 3 or 4 thousand more near Santa Fe and Taos, NM (And they had been well over 200 years by that point, and thought of themselves as Spanish – certainly not “Mexican”…..!)

    No “borders jumped” anyone. To the Mexican government in Mexico City, the northern provinces may just as well have been on the dark side of the moon. That’s how remote they were.

    Every G.D. Mexican making a squawk today ultimately came here from several thousand miles to the south.

    • Replies: @MarkinLA
    , @uslabor
  17. polistra says:

    Spanish was the first? Watch out. The Anasazi Liberation FrOnt is preparing a prOtest.

  18. MarkinLA says:

    Will affirmative action end when everybody can claim to be Hispanic?

    • Replies: @syonredux
  19. turtle says:

    > near Santa Fe and Taos, NM (And they had been well over 200 years by that point, and thought of themselves as Spanish – certainly not “Mexican”…..!)

    They still do, to the best of my knowledge.
    Based on my experience, calling one of these people “Mexican” is just about fighting words.
    Those whose Spanish ancestors came to New Mexico hundreds of years ago generally regard themselves as “Spanish-American,” not “Mexican.”

    • Replies: @Kyle McKenna
  20. MarkinLA says:
    @fred c dobbs

    Not only that but the Mexican government never offered citizenship to the Indians. That is why they let the Anglos into Texas – it was too sparsely populated to hold onto. They could have offered citizenship and autonomy to the Indians for holding onto the country the same way the Imperial Chinese used the Uighurs in the western provinces to hold onto their empire. Instead the Mexican government was actively killing them and offering bounties for their scalps. That is why is always cracks me up Indians and Mexicans in the US pretending they are some kind of relatives.

    • Replies: @uslabor
  21. turtle says:

    >German, Italian, and Polish all but disappeared after three generations

    The decline of German language and culture in the U.S. received an enormous boost from the campaign of hatred orchestrated by the Woodrow Wilson administration with the express purpose of involving the U.S. in the European War which came to be known, in the fullness of time, as World War I.

    Those of us U.S. citizens of German heritage have the dubious distinction of being the only group ever officially targeted for hatred by our own government, using our tax dollars for the purpose.
    Ironically enough, we were, until the recent influx of illegal immigrants from Latin America, the single largest ethnic group in the U.S.

    This repugnant chapter in U.S. history is generally not taught in public schools, but these days you can read about it on the web, should you choose.

    Some places to start:

    >Among the notable internees were the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt and 29 players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.[7] Their music director, Karl Muck, spent more than a year at Fort Oglethorpe, as did Ernst Kunwald, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

    Books were burned.
    Teaching, and even speaking, the German language was outlawed in various parts of the U.S.
    Over 200 German language newspapers closed their doors, never to reopen.
    There was at least one documented lynching:

    People, including some of my own ancestors, changed their names, out of fear.
    I am fourth generation German American.
    Both my father and my uncle served honorably in U.S. armed forces in the Second World War.
    When I was a boy, I learned to sing Stille Nacht for my grandfather, and I did know what it meant when my mother said “Macht schnell,” but, growing up in New Mexico, my second language is Spanish, not German.

    Fröhliche Weihnachten

  22. Michelle says:

    I always tell people who bemoan the fact that Americans are mostly mono-lingual, “English is the other language!” Most of us have ancestors who spoke a different language than English. English was the language that they learned in order to communicate with each other, for trade or for love. English in America is like Swahili in parts of Africa.

    As for the article, written by an hispanophile, it was just one of the totally leftist clap trap articles that the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle had to offer last Sunday. The articles were nauseating, really. My dear neighbors subscribe to the paper and they often leave it, unopened and unread, on my porch. I am a newspaper junkie and will read any newspaper, but… The Chronicle is a mess of leftist nonsense and their one right-wing columnist just retired. Actually ex-mayor Willie Brown is often a voice of pragmatic reason.

  23. @thisisaknife

    cynical? No, realist is more like it. Democrats treat minorities like children without even knowing it……wait, scratch that, i think they do know it.

  24. SF says:

    My great-great grandfather was German Lutheran, but he sent his children to Sunday School in the Congregational church so they would learn more English. My great-grandparents were the last ones to be fluent in German. My Grandmother taught me a few words, but didn’t remember that much herself.

  25. @turtle

    Those whose Spanish ancestors came to New Mexico hundreds of years ago generally regard themselves as “Spanish-American,” not “Mexican.”

    And many claim this heritage without any actual foundation, because they consider it more ‘high-class’. Similarly, all but the blondest SWPL types west of the Mississippi claim some Amerind heritage, whether or not they actually have any.

    Well, I guess that’s similar. Actually the white people do it to claim vaunted minority status, which permits you to do just about anything in this country. And what’s more vaunted than the people who were here first?

    That last question isn’t actually rhetorical. Because it’s a tad strange that the first settlers are said to enjoy the most legitimate claims of all, but the Anglos who came next are said to enjoy the least. The latest wetbacks arriving tomorrow are understood to outrank those whose ancestors settled America 400 years ago. Now, I’m forgetting: Why do Latinos outrank Anglos?

  26. @turtle

    Ebenfalls, Bruder. Und wir wuenschen euch einen guten Rutsch Ins neue Jahr.

    • Replies: @uslabor
  27. @MarkinLA

    Oh it’s happening or soon will be. Go check with the execs. at UNIVISION if you don’t believe me. There’s a reason they bought Gawker Media Group.

    • Replies: @MarkinLA
  28. A good friend of mine is the son of Russian immigrants who were fortunate enough to escape the Soviet Union as World War II was coming to an end. His mother and father always spoke to their kids in English, even though their dominant language was Russian. My friend thinks the reason for that was that the adults wanted to have the ability to carry on a private conversation between themselves if the need arose, and keeping the kids devoid of Russian was a simple way to do that.

    • Replies: @Ivy
  29. @Felipe Pena

    Are you saying you don’t like my Mexican friends? Great guys and gals no matter what their parents think.

  30. I favor amending the Constitution making English the official language of the US.

    No matter if we can get rid of half (maybe more, maybe not) of the illegals, the balance will stay. It’s our culture. They must adapt to us, not we to them. And language (“…language is the culture-bearer…) is the basic tool to do that job, be it easy or arduous.

    The Constition says an amendment must be approved by two-thirds of House and Senate, and then by two-thirds of the States. It’s almost there with the States, there are 32 who have declared English as their official language.

    “English is the official language of the United States. It shall be the exclusive language in all internal federal activities, and is the exclusive language for all internal activities countenanced or funded in any degree by federal authority.”

    • Replies: @uslabor
  31. @RadicalCenter

    I’ve experienced it myself, talked to countless whites that have as well. It’s a disadvantage to be a monolingual English speaker in so many areas. Of course this is nice for elites as well. They really don’t seem to like us (and we can tell). We’re more interested in government, politics, on a cultural level we get some of the ideas in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, we’re still into American nationalism, we’re individualistic, believe a hardworking man with a some talent (and a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt) should be able to get rich, we dream of more, doing more… How meddlesome. Marginalizing us is something they must do to realize their globalist ambitions, but the trick is not pissing us off too much as we witnessed with the election this year. The Clinton campaign arguably elected Trump. My fear is Trump will not get enough done, for one reason or another. The restrictions of immigration that I believe are needed he’s never even discussed.

  32. Ivy says:
    @Sgt. Joe Friday

    My neighbors from South Africa followed a similar approach. They spoke Afrikaans to each other when they didn’t want the children to know. That has likely been one aspect of immigrant lives in many cultures, where there is the appeal of conforming to a new life and a nostalgia for older ways.

  33. Dan Hayes says:


    What was previously done to your ethnic group – it’s cleansing, is now beings carried out against this country’s native White population!

    • Replies: @uslabor
  34. uslabor says:
    @fred c dobbs

    None AT ALL in Arizona? Spain founded Tubac in 1752 and Tucson in 1775. That was before the Mexican-U.S. War. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and everybody who was Spanish were then Mexicans because to be Mexican is a Nationality, not an ethnicity.

    Racists like you won’t use facts because facts don’t serve you.

    • Replies: @Johnny Smoggins
  35. SFG says:

    I read about that in high school. It was a good enough high school, despite its liberalism, that nobody tried to defend it as being justified to prevent Nazism.

  36. uslabor says:
    @JP Straley

    You can make English the official language all you want, but it will never be the exclusive language for “all internal ….blah…..blah blah….blah..authority”. Ain’t gonna happen.

    But, it is Christmas time, and maybe if you wish real hard, and tap your ruby, red slippers three times, Santy Claus (pronounce Santa Claus with Brooklyn Yiddish accent, please) will make English the Official Language.

  37. uslabor says:
    @Dan Hayes

    White folks are disappearing because they ain’t having no babies. It seems like white folk would rather buy into consumerism and get things like fancy cars than spend money on raising kids. I meet young white folks like that all the time. Four cars in the garage, eat out every night, but no kids.

  38. uslabor says:

    Prospero ano y falicidad!

    • Replies: @RadicalCenter
  39. uslabor says:

    I once worked with a fellow who spoke English with pleasant German accent, and I after I got to know him I asked what part of Germany he was from. I was astonished to find out he was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His first language was German, and he told me, with some bitterness, the crap he had to put up with growing up as an American citizen of German heritage.

    Gott segne die Deutschen, eine so schöne Sprache. Meine Schwiegermutter war deutsch.

    If it wasn’t Spanish, it would be some other language the bigots would gripe about!

  40. uslabor says:

    “That is why is always cracks me up Indians and Mexicans in the US pretending they are some kind of relatives.”

    Mestizos are typically mixed Hispanic (Spanish or Mexican), and Native American.

    Don’t you think that would make them some kind of “relative”. Huh, don’t-cha, don’t you think that?

    Do you suppose the U.S. Government was eradicating Native Americans too, huh? No, just them dirty Mexicans, right?

    Never mind.

    • Replies: @MarkinLA
  41. uslabor says:

    Hey, fellow Americans! Demonstrate just how smart you you REALLY are and learn a 2nd language! The Mexicans you despise so can speak two languages, and they’re not near as smart as YOU are, right? So shut off Green Acres and do something with your brain, and quit hating so much!

    I can hear you now, you’re thinking: But Mr uslabor, I don’t want to learn something new, and to quit hating, it’s easier to childishly hate spics than to to grow up. Just give me my steel belted radials, and Cap’n Crunch, and leave me alone.

    Okay, okay, don’t grow up. Es bueno, es bueno, no te penas.

    • Replies: @interesting
  42. syonredux says:

    Will affirmative action end when everybody can claim to be Hispanic?

    When will that be? Seems to me that Hispanics will always be able to find some evil Anglos to blame for their problems….

  43. MarkinLA says:

    Mestizos are typically mixed Hispanic (Spanish or Mexican), and Native American.

    Ask any Mexican Mestizo if they are Indian and see how many admit to it.

    The Indians in Mexico had nothing to do with the Indians in the USA.

  44. MarkinLA says:
    @Jim Bob Lassiter

    It’s probably dying because it’s so bad. I watched some of it when I lost my free cable and it was some of the worst TV I have ever seen.

  45. @uslabor

    “The Mexicans you despise”

    Don’t you have a massive chip on your shoulder…….everyone sees it.

    you seem like the racist based on your replies.

  46. @uslabor

    Though you may have a valid point, calling someone a racist hasn’t worked around here in a couple of years.

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