Samantha Ruiz is a student at Bravo Medical Magnet and the school’s Chicano Club vice president. She is proud of her Mexican roots. But the 17-year-old can’t speak Spanish.
“I don’t really practice it, because, when I do, people make fun of my accent,” she says.
The use of Spanish varies among Latino teens at this local high school, which is typical in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, where 94 percent of the population is Hispanic and many residents are immigrants or children of immigrants.
Latinos in the United States are losing their Spanish at a faster rate than ever before, according to Magaly Lavadenz, director of the Center for Equity for English Learners at Loyola University.
Immigrants tend to lose their ability to speak their native language if speaking English is important to success in jobs or education, studies show. And if their native language is seen as lower status or less desirable, immigrants can lose that language faster.
If an immigrant lives among a large immigrant population that speaks the same language, as is the case in Boyle Heights, it is easier to preserve language. But family culture and attitude about the language can be important, too.
No English at dinner
Ana Ramírez is a 45-year-old Salvadoran immigrant and mother of two who believes that Hispanic parents have an obligation to pass their native language on to younger generations. To ensure this at home, the Los Angeles resident banned English at the dinner table when her children were growing up.
“If you want what’s best for your children, you will make the effort to make sure they learn Spanish,” she advises.
“The ‘no English at dinner rule’ worked well in retaining a lot of my Spanish,” says Ramirez’s 24-year-old son, Manuel Arias, now a college student.
Some parents struggle to insure that their children remain fluent in two languages. Salvadoran immigrant Karla González, 27, remembers that when she was growing up, her dad laid down the law: “Spanish at home, English at school.” Gonzalez’s dad believed that Spanish tied them to their family back at home.
When González went away to college, she says it was hard to keep up her Spanish. Now a librarian at Benjamin Franklin Library, González sees different attitudes among young parents during story time.
“I noticed new immigrant parents wanting their kids to speak English,” she says, but second and third generation Latino parents are doing just the opposite. “Lately, there has been a push to put Spanish in our story time.”
Use of Spanish is on the rise in the United States, both because of the growth in immigrants and the large numbers of non-native speakers who are learning it as a second language. Still, a 2013 analysis by Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, predicted that Spanish fluency will decline among native speakers from about 75 percent now to 66 percent in 2020.
Despite the rise in English dominance, use of some Spanish persists even among third generation Latinos. A 2012 survey by Pew showed that significant shares of third generation Latinos use Spanish in daily activities, such as listening to music or watching television.
According to Pew, as many as 95 percent of U.S. Hispanic adults believe it is important for future generations of HIspanics to be able to speak Spanish.
“I have very pocha Spanish,” admits Maryann Aguirre, a second generation Mexican American who didn’t learn Spanish growing up and who is unable to teach it to her seven-year-old daughter, Leah Sol.
Aguirre was out at a restaurant when her daughter ordered in Spanish. “That was the first time when I realized, ‘Oh, my God’, she was learning how to speak Spanish,” she says.
Leah had been attending a daycare center on Breed Street, in Boyle Heights, where she learned and practiced the language. She says her daughter “speaks better Spanish than me.”
Aguirre, whose mother did not have time to teach her the language, feels fortunate that Leah is learning Spanish at school. “I know everybody wants to teach their kids Spanish,” Aguirre commented, “but it’s just really difficult.”
Language as a connector
Lavadenz, the Loyola Marymount professor, said that Spanish plays a vital role in connecting youth with their grandparents and families with their traditions. Lavadenz spoke at a Boyle Heights community meeting last fall that brought together dozens of people to discuss the connections between language and culture.
She warned that new generations are becoming monolingual at a much faster pace. “At the turn of the last century, it took three generations for the language to be lost ””to go from being a monolingual family to a bilingual and then to a monolingual family in three generations. Now it takes one and a half generations and sometimes less.”
Lavadenz reminded the audience that Spanish is one of the top three languages spoken around the world and that being bilingual is an advantage for job applicants.
Still, Spanish use amongst Bravo Highs School teens varies depending on their attitude towards it.
Diego Zapata, 17, a third generation Mexican American at Bravo High School, considers himself bilingual, but says he sometimes feels insecure about his language skills.
“I stopped [speaking] Spanish because I just wasn’t confident enough with it,” Zapata admits.
Others, like 19-year-old Mexican-Guatemalan Eric Gabriel, say it’s simply a matter of pride.
“No one likes a brown kid who can’t speak Spanish” he declares.