In June 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in San Jose and suggested that if Latino immigrants were to learn English, they should just say no to novelas. It appears immigrants may have taken his suggestion too seriously. There's sort of a paradox here. The number of Latinos who speak Spanish at home in the U.S. has grown dramatically since 1980 when there were about 11 million or so, to a high of 37 million in 2017, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the share of Latinos who speak español is declining. For example, in 2006 78 percent of Latinos spoke Spanish at home. Just nine years later, that percentage fell to 73 percent. Furthermore, the language is also declining in the nation's two largest metro areas with a significant Latino population in Los Angeles and New York. Despite it being by far the most common foreign language in the country, Spanish in the U.S. is eroding.
I know some may find it hard to believe, especially if you were to wander around in Arvin, McFarland or Shafter where a "English spoken here" sign in a store window would be appropriate. According to Census figures, those are the top three cities in Kern County with the highest percentage of Spanish-speaking persons. Eighty-seven percent of Arvin's population is Spanish-speaking, followed by McFarland at 84 percent and Shafter at 70 percent. Bakersfield comes in at 32 percent while Kern County overall stands at 38 percent.
¿So qué pasa? Is this the classic story of a foreign language decreasing with each new generation? Is Spanish going the way of Polish, Italian and German?
I have no idea, but it really begins in the home. As children of immigrants are raised in an English-speaking environment, they begin to lose their Spanish-language skills if in fact, they were ever taught Spanish at home. Use it or lose it.
"In reality, children learn the language of their peer group very quickly, so we see that English is acquired in the US pretty easily," said Maritza Salgueiro Carlisle, foreign language
professor at Bakersfield College. "What is more difficult is retaining their native language. Speak Spanish at home! Keep the tradition alive at home," she said.
Sadly, many Spanish-speaking parents have simply not given thought to passing on such a valuable skill to their offspring. It is common for parents to speak Spanish to their children, and the kids answer in English. Somehow this arrangement works. I see it in my own grandkids, ages 7 and 4. They generally get the gist of what i"m saying in Spanish and (occasionally) do what I ask, but they answer in English. Come to think of it however, they occasionally do what I ask no matter which language I use. Sometimes 7-year-old Landon will blurt out something in Spanish such as "Uno, dos, tres."
About the worse parents--and others--can do is criticize their children for not speaking proper Spanish. "No seas pocho!" Translation: "Don't be a pocho!" Pocho/a is a pejorative term used to describe other Mexicans who cannot speak Spanish fluently. That will most likely result in the youngster feeling self-conscience and driving the child further away from speaking Spanish all together. I've lost count how many times someone has told me their Spanish-speaking parents deliberately raised them speaking English only so they could do well in school and avoid what the parents had to endure by not being proficient in the dominant language. Understandable. But I wouldn't recommend it. Children in fact, can be bilingual and bicultural as multiple studies show learning another language has cognitive, cultural and competitive benefits.
As the good professor Salgueiro-Carlisle points out, being bilingual gives you in edge in the business and job market. There's also a large shortage of bilingual teachers in
California, which reinstituted bilingual education a few years ago.
The Bakersfield City School District, the state's largest K-8th grade public school district had the foresight to see these benefits when it introduced its Dual Immersion program more than 20 years ago at Voorhies Elementary. It's a rigorous academic program starting in Kindergarten where students are taught 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English. By 5th grade, the curriculum is taught 50 percent in Spanish and 50 percent in English. Students learn a second language without compromising the first. It is open to all students, regardless of their native language. Likewise, the Kern High School District is one of several in Kern County that encourage bilingualism by awarding a State Seal of Biliteracy. This program recognizes high school students who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing in one or more languages in addition to English. Students must complete certain coursework, pass high level exams and get good grades to earn the seal, which is affixed to their diplomas. Last year 815 students were awarded the seal, 729 of those were for being proficient in Spanish, 85 in French and one for Chinese. This can give students an advantage when applying for college (and parents can save a bundle without having to bribe anyone). Given its cognitive benefits, high school districts should seriously consider making it a requirement for students to successfully complete a foreign language course in order to graduate. If you have any ideas on how to promote and encourage Spanish or any other foreign language let me know. Perhaps Spanish will be the one that bucks the trend and have staying power.
Me, I just enjoy too many movies, books and above all musica en español, to say hasta la vista baby to my native language. Sorry Arnold.