At a recent event, the president told a Latinx Border Patrol agent, Adrián Anzaldúa, that he spoke “perfect English.” Paul Reyes, writing for CNN, took the president to task for again insulting Latinx people. “To him,” Reyes writes, “members of the country’s largest minority group will likely always seem foreign, even if they are US law enforcement officers.” Reyes goes on to give statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center demonstrating that the majority of the Latinx population in the United States speaks English proficiently (68%). This is an increase from the previous 59% recorded by PHC in 2000. Then, Reyes adds that “the share of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home is declining.”
This last statement from Reyes’ struck me as odd. Why mention that factual tidbit in an argument meant to counter the president’s racism and ignorance? Is this an accommodating strategy to assure non-Latinx Americans that we are serious about being Americans? It sounds like: “We’re shedding our cultural language for the sake of learning English. Please accept us.”
It is not surprising that younger generations of Latinxs are neglecting their cultural linguistic roots. But I do not think it’s something to cheer or even embrace as a positive development. Spanish is not like every other language that crossed oceans to get here. It was the first non-native language spoken on this side of the Atlantic. It is the language most widely spoken in our hemisphere.
In a 2017 report, the British Council stated that “Spanish is the second most widely spoken first language in the world with approximately 437 million native speakers.” The Council also identified Spanish as the number one language to learn regarding trade, business, and travel. (Presumably, that would be if you already know English, and I’m sure some would argue for Chinese). However, in the United States, Spanish is the number one language studied by students. The more than 37 million who speak it make the US the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. The prevalence of Spanish in this part of the world has made it difficult, almost absurd, for Spanish-speaking immigrants to shed it. With the exception of Richard Rodriguez’s family, many Spanish-speaking parents, unlike many past immigrants, will not coerce their children to become English monoglots.
Obviously, for many reasons, it’s important to learn Spanish. For Latinxs, though, it’s not only a pragmatic issue. For us, the language represents the lifeblood of our cultures. In its many beautiful national variations, Spanish speaks to our feelings and moods, to our bond with family, and to a part of our history. It shapes how we enter and look at our world. I’m proud to be fluent in both English and Spanish. That wasn’t always the case.
When I entered college, intent on majoring in English, I also made my mind to improve my Spanish. It wasn’t only the ribbing I got from relatives about my pronunciation or garbled grammar that motivated me. As an individual who loves and respects language, who understands the importance and power of language, I knew that refining my fluency in Spanish would open new worlds for me. I’m sure anyone who has learned another language values how doing so improved their primary language. (And I’m not even touching on the cognitive benefits of being bilingual).
The most important thing I learned from studying Spanish, though, was about my identity. As a Puerto Rican, I was able to better comprehend my cultural foundation through immersion in my people’s signature variation of Spanish. For a colonized nation, on the precipice of total assimilation and cultural extinction, I can’t emphasize enough the significance of maintaining one’s language.
The Latinx communities in the US should not jump on this country’s monoglot bandwagon. American chauvinism encourages the idea that learning any other language other than English is a waste of time. First, as a professor of English, I truly wish these chauvinists would actually learn English. It is ironic that the president congratulates a Latinx person for speaking “perfect English” when he consistently mangles the language. Secondly, I would urge Latinxs to learn Spanish, not to lose it. As a people, we have contributed greatly to this country. Our bilingualism (or multilingualism) is another contribution that not only cultivates and expands the American perspective—it represents and defines its true nature.
Image by Jairojehuel, Pixabay.