Habla español? Soon, Latinos will be less likely to say 'si'

Some Latinos feel there's no need to speak Spanish

Cindy Y. Rodriguez | 9/23/2013, 6:10 a.m.
Darlene Freire-Geller says teaching Spanish to her two youngest daughters, Emily (8) and Hailey (4), "just didn't happen." Freire-Geller, who is a second-generation American, knows Spanish but speaks English at work and at home. Her husband, Ira, only speaks English. Courtesy Darlene Freire-Geller

— It's no secret that more and more people are speaking español in the United States, but what you probably didn't know is that in the future more of those Spanish speakers will not be Hispanic.

That's right -- as immigrant families become more established here, future generations will follow the pattern of previous immigrants from Europe and Asia and stop using their native language.

But at the same time, non-Latinos will be learning Spanish and helping their kids to grow up bilingual because they want to pass on what they learned in school, take advantage of business opportunities or even because they have a Spanish-speaking spouse.

"On the one hand, the number of Spanish speakers is projected to grow to about 40 million by 2020 (from 37 million in 2011.) This reflects Hispanic population growth and a large number of non-Hispanics who will also speak Spanish," said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center.

"But, even though the number of Spanish speakers is projected to grow, among Hispanics, the share that speak Spanish is projected to fall from about 75% now to 66% in 2020," Lopez said.

In a previous study, Pew found that third-generation Hispanics are more likely than immigrant Hispanics to be English-dominant. They say they watch television mostly in English and the same was true about music and thinking.

In other words, third-generation Hispanics are not likely to speak Spanish at home, if at all. They are growing up in a world where speaking Spanish is not vital.

Which is exactly the case for Darlene Freire-Geller's two youngest daughters, Emily, 8, and Hailey, 4, who live in New Jersey.

"When I had my first daughter, Ashley, my mother helped me take care of her and only spoke to her in Spanish so she's fluent," said the Cuban-American mom.

"But when I married my husband, who is white and only speaks English, teaching Emily and Hailey Spanish just didn't happen, it didn't seem necessary, plus, they didn't spend as much time with my mother like Ashley," she said.

Freire-Geller, who is a second-generation American, knows Spanish but speaks English at work and at home. Her husband, Ira, only speaks English.

Her daughters are part of the phenomenon that people born in the United States will make up more of the Hispanic population growth than new immigrants, with the rate of arrival of Spanish-speakers slowing significantly in recent years.

It's not just the attitude of parents that will affect who speaks Spanish, but also schools, argues Florida International University assistant professor of linguistics Phillip M. Carter.

He said schools nationwide are set up to bring immigrant children and children of immigrants into "the mainstream," which means turning them into monolingual English speakers. The attitude of most schools is that children will learn their heritage language at home and they cultivate identities that are rooted in speaking English.

There are few schools that offer compressive bilingual education programs, such as two-way immersion programs, where students receive half of their education in each language, and that can create a loss, Carter said.