Language as a Hispanic Dilemma


The discussion about the Spanish Language in the United States has been built over three decades upon the foundation of clear and solid demographics. As is known, the Hart-Cellar Act, passed in 1965 during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency, opened U.S. doors to a wave of international immigration that began to boom in the 1970s, especially from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Significantly, in 1968, President Johnson personally established the commemoration of Hispanic Heritage Week, which was expanded to a month-long celebration under Ronald Reagan’s administration: held between September 15, or Independence Day in Mexico, Chile and various Central American republics, and October 12, which is Columbus Day in the U.S. holiday calendar. It is not a coincidence, then, that the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was also passed during the Reagan presidency, which meant access to citizenship for more than three million undocumented immigrants, a fact that led to a new surge in immigration, including from Hispanic countries. The economic boom, especially in the real estate sector, during the Clinton presidency led to one of the highest numbers of migratory movements towards the United States in the country’s history.

The Hispanic Community

The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau (2015) offer strong figures with respect to Hispanics in the U.S.: 56.6 million Hispanics in the country (17.6% of the total U.S. population), 9 states with a Hispanic population greater than one million, and 73.1% of Hispanics over the age of five who speak Spanish at home. Additionally, a 2016 report by the “Observatory of the Spanish Language and Hispanic Cultures in the United States” at the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University highlights various data that allows for a realistic picture of the current state of Spanish and of the Hispanic community (Martínez and Moreno-Fernández 2016). This picture reveals that Hispanics have the lowest education level among all ethnic groups, a fact that has been counteracted by an important reduction in the Hispanic dropout rate and a notable increase in the presence of Hispanics at U.S. universities. Similarly, Hispanic purchasing power is increasing decisively, which means that the community’s income level and poverty index are no longer the lowest in the nation, even if Hispanics continue to be the group with the least health coverage.

From a sociopolitical perspective, the Observatory’s report highlights the rise of Hispanics as an electoral body, due to the high proportion of native-born Hispanics in the United States. The counterpoint of this reality is the scarce participation in electoral processes by members of the youngest age group, born between 1980 and 1995, whose members identify as Millennials. This generation, instead, supports consumerism and participation in social media, turning Hispanics into the most dynamic group in virtual space. Despite the limitations imposed by its economic circumstances, the majority of the Hispanic community has access to smartphones, which Hispanics use habitually to access the Internet more often than other ethnic groups. Ultimately, the population data for 2016 bear witness to the continued growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, which in three decades has become the majority population in states like California and New Mexico and the ethnic group with the most ability to influence the social, economic, and political dynamic of the Union.

Data on the U.S. Hispanic Population

Source: US Census Bureau, 2015

With respect to demographics, there are other features that have been commented upon frequently over the last two years that merit additional reflection. On one hand, the increase in immigration from Asia has been so notable that Asians have become the fastest-growing group since 2013, at the same time that the flow of migrants to the U.S. from Spanish-speaking countries has slowed down and balanced out, as in the case of Mexico. This fact, however, does not present any major consequences from the perspective of language usage, since Asian immigrants do not all share a common language and must use English as a lingua franca. On the other hand, Hispanic growth was so intense that it led many to consider the possibility that the United Stated would become the most populous Spanish-speaking country in 2050. In effect, the census projections are very important given that there is an expected Hispanic population of 119 million (28.6% of the total population) by 2060. Mexico’s projections, however, signal that its population will reach the number of 150.8 million inhabitants in 2050. Mexico, then, would continue to be the biggest Spanish-speaking country, even if the United States would easily outstrip the rest of the Hispanic world.

The Language Dilemma

Traditionally, one of the most characteristic features of the Hispanic population has been its connection to the Spanish language. Alongside this trait have stood other definitive attributes of the Hispanic community like its tendency towards Catholicism and the assumption of sociocultural values like the family and group solidarity. Furthermore, these qualities tend to be transmitted between generations, given that, after Native Americans, Hispanics are the group with the highest level of endogamy. Nevertheless, the religious identity of Hispanics has been progressively diversifying (Pew Research 2014), and the cultural archetypes have assimilated to more general patterns. Race, most certainly, has never served as a hallmark, given the diversity of the Hispanic community, a fact that continues to cause problems in cataloging populations for census purposes. As a result, familiarity with Spanish remains as the defining and most constant feature of the Hispanic community. There are signs, however, that point to a possible weakening of the Spanish Language among U.S. Hispanics.

The maintenance or loss of the Spanish Language in the U.S. Hispanic community are processes that can be seen as much in personal or family life as they can in general society. The facts that evince these processes in each of these spheres are not identical, even if they are complementary; and in any case, the facts generate different perceptions and opinions depending on the type of information that is on hand. The fundamental question, however, is the same: will the Spanish Language disappear from social life in the U.S. or will it thrive definitively? From this point on Hispanics are faced with the dilemma of linguistic resilience and resistance or of yielding before the more prestigious current of the English language. Of course, the perspectives through which the dilemma is experienced are different according to an individual’s region of residence, social background, degree of integration, and even race, but the fundamental uncertainty is are shared one. In any case, with respect to the individual or social dynamics through which the maintenance or loss of the language can be interpreted, there are three spheres in which the dilemma presents itself with particular clarity: family, school, and the media.

The Language of Home

Cases of parents who foresaw the loss of Spanish among their children as irreparable are not exactly isolated. In many Spanish-speaking families, it is common to hear arguments like the following: “My children don’t want to speak Spanish amongst themselves”; “My daughter doesn’t want to tell me in Spanish how her day went at school”: “My kids only want to watch TV in English”; “My son doesn’t know how to explain his science homework to me in Spanish.” The conclusion that can be drawn from such a panorama is of the inevitable loss of Spanish in the family, which could very well be the case, if not for other intervening factors that might have an influence on the matter. Namely, the preference for English for communicating via certain channels and talking about specific subjects does not necessarily imply the loss of Spanish, as long as its use is not totally abandoned in the family. The displacement or loss of languages occurs when there is not a sufficient communicative flow between interlocutors, both in quantity (input) and in quality (diversity of topics discussed). The family is crucial for maintaining a sufficient linguistic flow; in terms of the diversity of topics talked about, school and public life are essential areas.

From a social perspective, the loss of Spanish has been popularly explained as part of an assimilation process, referred to as a melting pot, that invariably has acted upon all immigrant languages in the United States and that would seem to be working to similarly to neutralize Spanish. What is certain is that the image of the melting pot has become somewhat outdated in sociological thought and that the reality of the Spanish language does not exactly correspond to what happened with other languages. The U.S. Census offers valuable information about the percentage of speakers older than 5 years old who prefer to use Spanish within their homes. Indeed this figure has only decreased by a paltry 2% since 1980, over the span of a generation. The decrease by 5% since the year 2000 is the one that casts doubts on what might happen in the next generation.

Percentage of Hispanics Older than 5 Years Old who Speak Spanish at Home.

Source: US Census Bureau. % / Census Data

This latter decline, which would affect the third generation of Hispanics in the U.S. occurred alongside other significant facts that also influence the life of languages. One such factor is the current ratio of Hispanics already born in the United States (65%) to those born abroad (34.9%); another noteworthy factor is the improvement of Hispanics’ knowledge of English: 68.4% speak English very well; a third feature would be the increased preference for media consumption in English among the youngest Hispanics. With respect to the improved command of English, psycholinguistics demonstrates that a better knowledge of one language need not be an obstacle to the command of another; and, in terms of the preference for English in the media, this does not just relate to the language itself, but rather to other aspects of social communication.

Language and Education

If school must be vital for the maintenance of Spanish, it is worth it to observe up-close some indices that might allow us to get a glimpse of the future. One such piece of information, highlighted in a report by Rhodes and Pufahl for the Observatory of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard, reveals how little attention the U.S. educational system pays, not just to Spanish, but to languages in general at the level of primary education: in 2008, only 25% of public schools offered foreign languages. There are attempts to reduce this remarkable lack of foreign language education through offering dual immersion programs –since it is almost taboo to speak of “bilingual education” within the government — that split the school day and its classes between two languages, principally English and Spanish. In recent years, hundreds of programs of this type have been developed. The problem is that this educational strategy does not continue into secondary education, which means that students, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic, lose continuity in terms of using Spanish to learn about certain topics, in addition to having their Spanish-language workload and time commitments reduced, in comparison to their primary school experiences. There are, then, reasons to think about a weakening of Spanish in the educational sphere, if these deficiencies in language study are not compensated for.

Now, having said this, and to go beyond dual immersion programs (even if it is partially a consequence of the extension of such programs), the world of Spanish-language instruction is creating an increasingly open space for an approach known as Spanish as a “heritage” language. This approach consists of teaching the Spanish language to students of a Hispanic background, not as a second language or “L2,” but rather as a language of communication that needs a broadening of its usage into more sophisticated and academic registers, in addition to a special treatment of its values as a defining feature and reason for self-esteem. The grown in the number of Hispanics born in the United States makes it possible to foresee further development in this form of Spanish instruction. At present, approximately 40% of colleges and universities in which Hispanic students make up at least 5% of the study population offer programs created for heritage speakers.

The group that appears to have no doubts about the importance of the future of Spanish are non-Hispanic students of Spanish, who continue to take Spanish classes in large numbers from secondary school until the end of their university educations. There is a sense among these students that Spanish is more than just a foreign language, that indeed it is the second national language of the U.S. Spanish is offered as a subject in 93% of secondary schools, showing impressive growth in comparison to other languages: French classes have decreased by 20%, and those in German by 14% since 1987. Likewise, at the university level, Spanish is more studied than all other foreign languages combined, including Latin. And so, it seems that non-native learners of Spanish have a clear sense of the value of being able to communicate in Spanish.

Spanish and the Media

Finally, the Spanish language is also sorting out its future in the sphere of social communications. The use of Spanish in community spaces varies considerably from one state to another, in such a way that the favorable situation of the language in Miami, Los Angeles, San Antonio, or New York is not comparable with its less favorable situation in Boston, Seattle, or Salt Lake City. That said, the situation among social communications media is singular. Until relatively recently, Hispanic communications giants, like Univisión, did not only show their strength in the Hispanic population, but also reached higher audience indices than the large U.S. English-speaking media groups. The Spanish-language press, which has a long history in the United States, as has been shown in the research of Nicolás Kanellos, had grown at the same rapid rate as the Hispanic population. All of this, however, has met with a pause, if not a regression, during the last three years. The underlying reason for this is the advance of online communications media connected to social networks, which are significantly more available in English. To this must be added the fact that the majority of Hispanics were born in the United States and have enough bilingual abilities to choose the media of their preference, regardless of the language.

This recent decline in communications media in Spanish, both audiovisual and written, merits a thorough analysis. And the fact is that it is not so much an issue of using one language or another as much as it is a question of the journalistic models and formats used by the communications sector. Newer generations access information through electronic media and expect content and formats to be updated. A report from the Observatory of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard from 2016 demonstrated how Hispanic online publications were created as an extension of paper publications and of Spanish American-style journalism (González Tosat 2016). On the other hand, newer generations demand communicative products at the standards set by generations familiar with bilingualism and whose interests are not those of their parents and grandparents. Even Spanish-language radio, a medium used daily by more than 90% of the Hispanic population, has had its content colonized by traditional music, especially Mexican traditional music. In these moments a fierce battle is being waged to find the communicative model that will capture the attention of Hispanic youth; to this end different alternatives have been proposed: English-language advertisements with Hispanic cultural elements, bilingual audiovisual content, formats with updated content expressed in alternating languages.

In short, it can be said that the future of Spanish is being decided, not just in the family and at school, but also at the point where technology intersects with interesting content for a generation that is highly conscious of its Hispanic roots and of its role as the promoter of a vision of society that is more flexible, modern, and integrated.

[Spanish Version. “La lengua como dilema hispano”. Política Exterior. Noviembre 2016]