About half of U.S. Latinos who don’t speak Spanish well say they have been shamed by other Latinos for it, a Pew Research Center survey has found, though 75% of all Latinos say they can speak the language at least pretty well.
Latinos ages 18 to 29 – the least likely age group to be able to carry on a conversation in Spanish – said jokes or comments about their limited language ability happen extremely or very often, significantly higher than all other age groups.
“It’s really damaging because language is a part of your identity,” said Lourdes Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “So when you’re told that your language is a problem, what people are telling you is that there’s a problem with you.”
The Pew survey, conducted in August 2022, collected responses from a nationally representative sample of 3,029 Latinos. While three-quarters of all Latinos said they spoke Spanish at least pretty well, that was true for just 57% of those born in the U.S. – including 69% of second-generation Latinos and just 1 in 3 Latinos (34%) who were third-generation or higher.
Among surveyed Latinos with limited or no Spanish-language ability, 54% said family or friends had joked about or commented on their inability. The portion was slightly higher among those 18 to 49 years old (57%) and highest among those with college experience (61%).
Language skills in US fade with generations
About 62.5 million Latinos resided in the U.S. as of 2021.
This summer, an interview with a young soccer fan conducted by ESPN Deportes’ Jose Del Valle after Mexico’s CONCACAF Gold Cup win in Inglewood, California, went viral after the Latino boy was unable to understand the reporter’s questions. The exchange prompted criticism of the boy’s parents for not teaching him Spanish.
At a 2016 Republican primary debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio attempted to belittle Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ Spanish comprehension, prompting Cruz to respond in Spanish.
While the U.S. has one of the world’s largest Spanish-speaking populations, a familiar pattern plays out with immigrants, Torres said: Native language skills are mostly lost within three generations, with the first generation maintaining their primary language, the second generation becoming bilingual and the third primarily speaking English.
“It’s a pattern that the U.S. has unfortunately had for decades,” Torres said. “Linguists refer to the U.S. as a language cemetery. It’s where languages come to die.”
While English isn’t officially the country’s official language, Torres said, it’s unofficially so.
“There’s a push for people to learn English as soon as possible,” she said. “People are shamed if they don’t speak English well.”
Both types of shaming, she said, illustrate what writer Gloria Anzaldúa has called “linguistic terrorism” – the notion that neither their English nor their Spanish is “good enough.”
“You’re dealing with a situation where Latinos are continually faced with questions about their Americanness,” said Jonathan Rosa, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in Palo Alto, California. “Language is often positioned as one of the clearest signs…. People are seen as assimilating too much or not assimilating enough.”
Political and social pressures play a role
Such patterns persist because of political pressures like heightened anti-immigrant sentiment and the xenophobia perpetrated by rhetoric such as Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug runners leading up to his 2016 presidential bid.
In 2018, for instance, a New York City lawyer berated a local restaurant’s staff for not speaking English in a video that subsequently went viral, accusing them of living off his money: “I pay for their welfare,” he said. “I pay for their ability to be here. The least they can do is speak English.” The man publicly apologized after being kicked out of his office space and drawing the ire of elected officials.
Many Latino immigrant parents who experienced discrimination and humiliation for their limited English skills, Torres said, choose to raise their children to speak English – which is a shame, she added, given the cognitive benefits scholars have found in bilingualism.
“They don’t want their kids to suffer the same harm that they did,” Torres said. “We’re a country that, despite the rhetoric, is really hostile to other languages. Instead of looking at them as an asset, they’re treated as a negative aspect that needs to be eliminated.”
Laura Muñoz, an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the major force in generational language erosion is Americanization. The process has historically been linked to politics, she said – for example, in Arizona, where lawmakers in the early 20th century made English proficiency mandatory for voting rights.
“You had people who had been politically active who were essentially disenfranchised because they could not read or write English,” she said. “But they could pay taxes. It’s not just saying you must speak English in order to be American. It’s about terrorizing people with a law to force them to relinquish their language.”
Latinos lose family, community ties
When language is lost intentionally or by assimilation, it also tears at family and community fabric, Muñoz noted: Children lose the ability to communicate with their grandparents; people lose the ability to converse with their Spanish-speaking neighbors or the Mexican restaurant owner down the street.
“If you have a child growing up in English-speaking society, you want that child to do as well as possible,” she said. “Encouraging them to speak English is part of that. So there’s this massive pressure on young children of Latino heritage to abandon their language.”
Rosa said the stigmatization of limited or imperfect language skills is frustrating considering the “incredible dexterity” many Latinos have demonstrated in terms of their multilingual abilities, not just in Spanish and English but including indigenous languages and various Spanish forms.
“That gets lost in the discussion when you’re just focused on what people lack or how much English or Spanish they know,” he said. “We’re talking about a population that is incredibly linguistically diverse.”
The idea that people should speak one language or the other is incorrect, Rosa said: The melding of the two in itself can be a mode of maintaining history and heritage.
“That’s what you can miss when you create the idea of a pure standard,” he said. “It’s not a sign of failure, but a sign of navigating really challenging political, economic and cultural circumstances.”