Viewpoints

Why it’s in California’s best interest to save Spanish

Bilingual signs line the hallway at Thomas Edison Language Institute in Carmichael in September. The institute has taught students in both Spanish and English for years, and the passage of Proposition 58 gives schools more freedom on bilingual education.
Bilingual signs line the hallway at Thomas Edison Language Institute in Carmichael in September. The institute has taught students in both Spanish and English for years, and the passage of Proposition 58 gives schools more freedom on bilingual education. rbenton@sacbee.com

How are Californians going to save Spanish?

Yes, I know that a call to preserve Spanish might seem ludicrous when about 38 percent of Californians speak the language. And saving Spanish may seem especially daft now, as America’s deranged politics pit Trumpian xenophobia against liberal triumphalism about growing diversity.

But the realities of immigration and language put the lie to the notion that Spanish has nowhere to go but up. To the contrary, there are signs that the Spanish language is already declining, which is why Californians should act now to preserve it.

Spanish is confronting the “three-generation death” law of non-English languages.

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 their parents’ language over time; and a third generation that grew up speaking English only.

It’s possible that Spanish in 21st-century California may prove more durable, given the proximity of Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. But it’s far more likely that Spanish will become the latest 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. The trend should accelerate: 69 percent of third-generation Latinos are English-dominant, while only 29 percent are bilingual.

Other trends will undermine Spanish. Even before the U.S. elected the candidate who promised a border wall, immigration to the U.S. from Mexico was at net zero, and immigration from Latin America was in deep decline because of growing middle-class prosperity, lower birth rates and higher education levels.

Another part of this story is the growing power of English, which has become the language of global commerce, culture and technology. It’s also a wonderfully democratic language, without the divisive gender distinctions of Romance languages, the tricky tones of Asian languages or the complex grammar of German or Russian.

Californians should welcome the trend.

Our more homegrown, more English-speaking population should be more cohesive. But our state has a special interest in preserving Spanish. It is at the heart of the history of California. We were a Spanish colony that was founded as a bilingual state; our first constitution required the laws be printed in Spanish and English. And preserving Spanish would serve the future.

Now, you can graduate from a California high school without taking even one course in a foreign language, and the UC and Cal State systems require only two years of foreign language for admission. That borders on the criminally negligent, given all the good that learning another language does for our brains.

In November, California voters approved Proposition 58, a modest measure removing bureaucratic barriers to teaching California students in languages other than English. But Spanish needs more, including state requirements and investment so that instruction is available to all.

If we preserve Spanish here as it fades elsewhere, we’ll have a comparative advantage over the rest of the country. Spanish could become a special force in California, distinguishing us and binding us together.

And with that happy thought, I wish you Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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