The US: A Cemetery of Languages

They say the United States is a cemetery of languages. The presence of Italian in New York, Polish in Chicago and French in New Orleans is a thing of the past. The dominance of English invariably overpowers the languages of the immigrants who arrived at different times and to different places.

The same is supposed to happen with Spanish. The children of Hispanic/Latino immigrants prefer to speak English among themselves and only use Spanish to speak to their parents, often reluctantly, and then the third generation loses the mother tongue of their grandparents for good. What is more, the second generation often speaks with limited, everyday vocabulary and tends not to read or write in Spanish. Very few have a strong command of the various aspects of both languages: speaking, understanding, reading and writing.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 95 percent of Latinos born outside of the United States speak Spanish at home, whereas only 60 percent of those born in the United States speak it. Comparatively, 89 percent of Latinos born in the United States have a strong understanding of English.

The inflow of Latino immigrants over the 20th century spread the Spanish language and gave it prominence. Should this flow stop, or significantly be reduced, as seems to be the case in the 21st century, the Spanish language would then begin to disappear. Today, the increase in the Latin community in the United States (54 million) occurs naturally, not through immigration.

It is not only a question of the dominance of the native language over other languages, but also of the hegemony that monolingualism has in the United States. They say that if you speak English, there is no need to speak another language — the whole world is adapting to those circumstances.

Globally, it is estimated that 413 million people speak Spanish natively — they are geographically concentrated in Latin America and Spain. However, only 15 million people speak Spanish from having studied it, and those people generally come from a bilingual background or live near a border. Nevertheless, in the past few decades, learning Spanish as a foreign language in schools and universities has notably increased.

In Brazil, in 1991, there was a relevant public policy decision taken to increase the study of Spanish in schools. That initial push involved huge challenges, given the need to train and hire around 200,000 teachers. They began with high schools, and in 2005, it was finally designated as a compulsory subject in every public and private school. It was the market, MERCOSUR, that finally tipped the scales, and now Spanish is more popular than English in Brazil. In fact, it is much easier for Brazilians to learn Spanish, given the similarities between the two languages [Portugese and Spanish]. The impact of this policy may have been substantial considering Brazil’s large population (200 million), but more importantly, it was through the interregional migration that takes place in South America.

In any case, the future of Spanish is reliant upon the American continent, with Brazil’s inclusive policies and the mass arrival of Spanish-speaking migrants to the United States. It depends on the expansive force of English being recognized at the global level, while acknowledging the endurance of Spanish in several places where it supposedly was fated to disappear.

Perhaps the most applicable example is Puerto Rico, an American colony that has resisted the use of English as the lingua franca for over a century. For Puerto Ricans, Spanish is a cultural bastion that must be defended, and nobody has been able to impose English like in other colonial locations (the Philippines and Hawaii). They say Puerto Rico will not become just another state in the U.S. because that would involve integrating the people of a state where the majority speak Spanish on a daily basis.

The other place where Spanish has a strong presence is Miami, where first Cubans, and then Latin Americans in general, developed a business world in Spanish. Miami has transformed over the past 50 years, from a spa resort for retired white people to a large global metropolis that serves as a bridgehead to link the United States with the Caribbean and Latin America. Banking, trade and communication play a key role, but Miami has also become a cultural hub, a place where prevalent artists of diverse disciplines can converge.

Los Angeles is still an important Latin bastion, although it has stopped growing in recent decades. Actually, the Latino population has expanded toward neighboring states — especially Nevada, Oregon and Washington — which now have a large number of Latinos. However, the growth across several cities dilutes the impact Spanish and bilingualism could have.

New York and Chicago are two other metropolises where Spanish can be heard on the streets and on the subway, and Latinos there have a high degree of representation. Latinos of different nationalities live in the same neighborhoods, often sharing jobs where the lingua franca is Spanish.

Spanish is, perhaps, the exception to the “cemetery of languages” rule. So far, immigration, trade and the media have enhanced and strengthened the presence of Cervantes’ language in an Anglophone country. It remains to be seen what actions will be taken by nations such as Mexico and Spain to spread, preserve and encourage the use of Spanish in the United States. It is not only a cultural issue; it has profound political and economic implications that must be taken into account.

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