Spanish in America |***ııı***| Can Spanish avoid America’s language graveyard?

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The battle for bilingualism

IN A sunny classroom scattered with Spanish translations of “Green Eggs and Ham” and Spanish-English dictionaries, Anabel Barrón reads aloud to her second-grade class from a book about penguins. “Y los pingüinos vuelan?” she asked. “No, they don’t fly!” answered an eager boy with a neat crew cut. “En español, por favor, Justin,” Ms Barrón gently chided him.

The classroom is one of several that offers bilingual instruction at the Sandra Cisneros Campus, a charter school in the Echo Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles that serves mostly Latino children. Kindergarteners in its dual-immersion programme spend 80% of their days in Spanish and 20% in English. Each subsequent year they spend an extra 10% of their time in English until fifth grade, when 70% of their instruction is in English and 30% in Spanish.

The original theory underpinning such programmes was that they helped Spanish-dominant children perform better by easing them into English. Today, says Melissa Mendoza, the school’s principal, Latino parents are seeking out dual-immersion programmes for a different reason: to make sure their English-dominant children can speak Spanish at all.

Such was the motive for Juan Montanez, whose five-year-old son, Rocco, attends kindergarten at Sandra Cisneros. Mr Montanez was born in Los Angeles to Mexican parents. Even though they understood little English, they encouraged him to speak in it to “get ahead”. He married someone from a similar background and they speak to one another and to Rocco mainly in English. “Now he probably knows more Spanish than me, but without this programme he would only learn it from his grandpa,” Mr Montanez muses.

Linguists have often referred to America as a “language graveyard”. Despite being a country of immigrants, it has tended to snuff out foreign languages within two or three generations. Spanish, it has long been thought, might be different. Hispanics account for 18% of America’s population and are projected to make up 28% by 2060, according to the United States Census Bureau. Given the large size and rapid growth of the Hispanic population, some people used to fear that Spanish would not only endure but overtake English, especially in states like California and New Mexico, where Latinos are the largest ethnic group.

That concern has turned out to be unfounded. Between 2006 and 2015 the population that speaks Spanish at home in America, which is often interpreted as a proxy for Spanish dominance, grew from 31m to 37m. But during the same period the share of all Spanish-speaking Hispanics who speak Spanish at home shrank by five percentage points, from 78% to 73%. Data analysed by Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, show that, in 2000, 48% of Latino adults aged 50 to 68 and 73% of Latino children aged 5 to 17 spoke “only English” or “English very well”. By 2014 those figures had increased to 52% and 88%.

The explanation has a lot to do with changing demography. Net migration to America from Mexico, the largest source of immigrants, has been negative since the end of the financial crisis. More Hispanics in America today were born in the United States than arrived from other countries as immigrants, making them less likely to speak Spanish at home—or at all. In 2000, 59.9% of Latinos were born in America. By 2015 that share jumped to 65.6%. Lower birth rates and a stronger economy in Mexico mean such trends are likely to continue, rendering the future of Spanish in the United States uncertain.

In his well-known study on “linguistic life expectancies” in southern California in 2006, Rubén Rumbaut, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that Spanish was following the same trajectory as other languages in America had—just more slowly. He established that only 5% of fourth-generation Mexican-Americans in southern California could speak Spanish very well: “After at least 50 years of continuous Mexican migration into southern California, Spanish appears to draw its last breath in the third generation.”

In reaction to the idea that Spanish may succumb to the same pattern that saw German, Polish and Italian largely disappear from America, today there is a growing movement to encourage bilingualism. Beyond California, programmes have also sprung up in states like Utah, which wants to build a healthy core of bilingual missionaries, and Delaware. “It used to be that immigrant parents thought discouraging their kids from speaking foreign languages was the way to assimilate. Now there’s a growing recognition that bilingualism is a great advantage, not only culturally, cognitively and to college applications, but practically,” Mr Rumbaut explains.

Controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, parents’ socioeconomic status and living with parents, he found that fluent bilinguals in southern California made nearly $3,000 more per year than Californians who spoke only English. That income bump was part of what motivated Mr Montanez to enroll Rocco in a Spanish-immersion programme: “I tried to explain to him that more languages means more money, which means more toys.”

But overall, American language education remains poor. As of 2014 only 12 states had more than one in four elementary and secondary schools where pupils studied a language other than English. Nationwide, 21.5% of American pupils were learning another language, compared with more than half of pupils in Europe. Research shows that 75.5% of English-speaking Americans who are fluent in another language learned that language at home; only 16.3% did so at school. As Spanish use at home shrinks among Latino families, the language seems destined to dwindle too.