The Language Question: Bilingual or Not, No One Is a Fake

By Ricky Garza, Communications Department, NCLR

As America’s Latino population grows and diversifies, the question of what unites us becomes more difficult to answer.  For the immigrants and their descendants who hail from Latin America’s 19 Spanish-speaking countries, diverse histories, cultures, cuisines, and national identities all threaten to divide us as a community.  Fortunately, the use of a common language seems the great equalizer, something that all Latinos can unite behind.

But what about Latinos who don’t speak Spanish?

Because a majority of all Hispanics are born in the United States, millions of young Latinos grow up as third- or fourth-generation citizens, owing their roots to a migration from perhaps over a century ago.  Yet they are categorized alongside more recent Spanish-speaking Latinos by either their looks or their last name.  These young people are clearly Latino, but an acute sense of shame and belittlement can come with not knowing Spanish, both from within and from outside the community.

The label of “Hispanic” is often considered as an ethnicity rather than a race, including by the U.S. Census (although this too is subject to change), making it difficult to argue that a permanent and singular Latino identity exists.  As has been seen throughout U.S. history, ethnic identities can quickly be assimilated into the identities of other races.  A mixture of culture, darker skin, and the Spanish language seems to barely hold us together as a group.  For a light-skinned, fourth-generation Mexican American growing up in a monolingual home, a connection to Hispanic identity may seem out of reach.

But is shaming the monolingual members of our community a productive task?  A quick glance at the comments section of the Huffington Post’s coverage of this language issue shows a flood of frustration with “fake Latinos” who are bitterly “refusing to learn” Spanish.

While we now understand that bilingualism improves brain activity and intelligence, those who are lucky enough to grow up bilingual generally don’t make a conscious choice to do so, just like third- and fourth-generation Hispanics don’t spend their childhoods actively denouncing Spanish.

Instead, language acquisition is largely a function of environment.  If you grow up in a home with bilingual immigrant parents, you are very likely to learn a second language.  If your parents tend to speak English and you’re consistently part of an English-speaking environment, then you’re likely to speak only English.  According to Professor Rubén Rumbaut of University of California, Irving, the transition to monolingualism is “essentially complete by the third generation.”

For my parents’ generation, the Texas education system declared war on Spanish from the first day of kindergarten.  Any chatter in a “dirty language” like Spanish would send them straight to detention or the principal’s office for a paddling.  The message was clear—English was the language of America, and any deviations from that were not welcome.

Today, for the most part, we know better and recognize the values of bilingualism.  But we just as well can’t ignore the lasting effects of the anti-Hispanic policies of the past, which continue to shape the Latino experience for millions of young people.

These monolingual or less-than-fluent Hispanics are just as entitled to a place in the Latino community, and they should not be excluded for something that is no fault of their own.  Contrary to stereotypes about some Latinos’ disinterest in their culture and the Spanish language, a new study suggests that fourth- and later-generation Hispanics are now actively returning to bilingualism by learning Spanish later in life (as I’ve done), reversing the longstanding trend of language loss.

Regardless of whatever level of proficiency these learners reach, their Hispanic identity should not solely depend on it.  Our culture, with all its diversity, is far too complicated for that.  We should recognize that Spanish is just one of countless factors that make us who we are.

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