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.