Study Has Surprising News About Spanish

Turns out anti-immigration paranoids were right all along: Americans will be speaking more Spanish in coming years. But, there's a twist: A new Pew study shows that more of these Spanish-speakers won't be Latinos themselves.

Spanish is already the most commonly-spoken non-English language in America, and projections show that the number of Spanish-speakers is going to hit 40 million by 2020.

"This reflects Hispanic population growth and a large number of non-Hispanics who will also speak Spanish," said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center.

However, the number of Spanish speakers among the Latino community is going to fall dramatically, from 75 percent to 66 percent.

Of course, there are some Americans who find that unacceptable: pro-Official English activists, as they are known, fear Latino immigration will also bring a linguistic influx that forever corrupts America's proud anglophone tradition. "Supporters of ... [English-Only measures] say that English forms the glue that keeps America together," writes scholar Dennis Baron for PBS. "They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth."

In reality, the situation is much like when a wave of Chinese-Americans came over during the mid-19th century, or when Italians came in droves during the 20th century: The children who arrived with immigrant parents had to quickly adjust to a world that spoke English, and assimilated by speaking it — often as their primary or singular language.

The same holds true for arrived Latino families today. "Children learn in their school setting that the only language that really matters in this society is English," says Phillip M. Carter, Florida International University assistant professor of linguistics.

He calls these mainstreamed children "generation 1.5," a group that experiences shame for speaking Spanish. They're not refusing to learn English — social and cultural pressure demands they do. "They therefore cultivate identities that are rooted in English speaking," he says.

"Language is just as much about value, culture, identity, context, emotion, behavior and usage" as it is about the words themselves, Carter says.

And so by the third generation, many Latinos have constructed identities influenced by educational and social factors that are rooted in English. Most cite English as their dominant language, listen to music in English, watch TV in English, and even think instinctively in English. Those who don't list themselves as English-dominant (69 percent) call themselves bilingual (29 percent).

But even as non-Latino professionals and students continue to learn Spanish, there's a fear that the language is being lost as it disappears out of native-speakers' homes.

"As a linguist, the big 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.," says Carter.

In any case, writes Barron, today's non-English speaking immigrants are picking up English much faster than earlier generations. In fact, 97 percent of American residents speak English.

So, all that political bother in June and last year about making English an 'official' language? Not really necessary. After all, a little historical context: early Americans were concerned that German would overtake English, and we all know how that turned out, ja?

(Image by LeafLanguages via Flickr)