Can Spanish Survive In The U.S.?


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Some experiences stay with a person forever. For Susana Rivera-Mills, it was moving  in 1982 from El Salvador to San Francisco at the vulnerable age of 12 — and not knowing how to speak a word of English. The education system was different then, and Rivera-Mills was actually classified as a special-needs student. She was held back a year in school. Decades later, the bilingual and successful college professor still has traumatic memories of being rejected by her peers on a daily basis. The emotional hurdle, she says, was more difficult to overcome than surviving the civil war that she and her family fled. Scars from the experience later surfaced when she became a mother and had to make the difficult decision of whether to pass on her native tongue to her only son.
During the first five years of her son’s life, Rivera-Mills says in a USA Today report, that she spoke to him solely in Spanish, while her husband spoke to him in English. That practice ended when her son started school and became self-conscious of being different from other kids.
“My mother instinct said, ‘I don’t want my son to be rejected and made to feel like an outcast,’ ” Rivera-Mills explains. But I did “want him to grow up feeling strong and confident in one language.”
And so English became the dominant language at her home, and her now 10-year-old son went from being bilingual to monolingual.
Rivera-Mills has high hopes that her son will speak Spanish fluently again; future immersion trips to Mexico and El Salvador may help. But anecdotes and research have shown that to be unlikely.
While an overwhelming majority of Latinos agree that passing on the Spanish language to future generations is critical, studies show that few people are actually doing that. According to a 2012 Pew Hispanic Center study on language use among Latinos, only 47 percent of third-generation Latinos can speak Spanish proficiently. Even fewer can read in their home language.
The reasons are varied, but they include the need to avoid discrimination (as felt by Rivera-Mills), the desire for economic advancement and the belief that to be truly American, English must replace Spanish. These influences make raising bilingual kids difficult, even for parents who seem fully equipped to do so.
That includes parents like Rivera-Mills, a professor of Spanish at Oregon State University who holds a master’s degree in Spanish linguistics and a doctorate in romance languages. She is considered an expert on Spanish language usage and its effect on society.
“Even for those of us who are educated, professional (and) who understand the dynamics and the politics, the parental instinct to protect your child, to want your child to succeed as much as possible with the least barriers as possible, takes over,” Rivera-Mills says.
That must have been the same feeling Yvonne Condes’ parents had when they were raising her in Tucson, Ariz., in the 1980s. Although Condes’ Mexican father and her Mexican-American mother are bilingual and spoke only Spanish to each other at home, they chose to raise their four children as monolingual English speakers.
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