Loss of the Heritage Language

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Four Generations: my daughter + mi abuelita

I don’t know why, but lately I’ve been bombarded by information related to the loss of heritage languages in this country. It probably has to do with the fact that I’m currently working on a newspaper story about how some second–or even third–generation immigrants who were not taught Spanish by their parents are choosing to do the opposite with their children.

I recently found out my husband works with somebody who was born in Mexico, but moved to Colorado when he was a child and–as it happened with many children not too long ago–was virtually punished in school if he spoke Spanish. The result: he ended up having to re-learn it when he went to college.

During a recent interview I conducted with the head of a full immersion school, which will open its door in Denver in August, I was surprised to find out that many first-generation parents were genuinely not interested in such a program because their biggest desire was for their children to learn English–not Spanish–so they could have the kind of success that eludes them due to their lack of English skills.

Finally, just this weekend, I came across an online discussion, in a Facebook group I belong to called Wise Latinas Linked, that dealt with this exact subject matter. The member who started the thread said, “My parents were among the generation that was whipped for speaking Spanish in school, and as a result, my grandparents stopped speaking in Spanish to them so they could learn English better.” As a result, she was not taught Spanish and is now having a very hard time trying to learn it in college.

Apparently, she’s not alone. As the head of the immersion school explained, research suggests that Spanish is all but dead in the third generation. This is how she explained it to me: first generation immigrants usually learn enough English to survive, but conduct themselves mostly in Spanish in their daily lives. Their children–or the second generation–(whether they were born here or came when they were young) maintain their Spanish (mostly spoken only), but conduct themselves mainly in English in their daily lives. Their grandchildren–or the third generation–speak only English. (By the way, this is also true of heritage languages other than Spanish.)

I know that speaking Spanish is not the only way to define Latinos, but it can’t be denied that it’s very tightly connected to our culture. Furthermore, although not entirely impossible, it does become very difficult to choose to raise your children bilingual if you weren’t raised that way. I guess, it just wouldn’t feel natural.

I’ve been truly flabbergasted by all this information. More than anything, I have been very saddened by it. My kids are still so young, I have no way of knowing what’s going to end up happening with them when they become adults. I can only hope I can instill in them enough pride for their heritage that they choose to gift their own children by raising them bilingual and bi-cultural, too!

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