What’s the point of caring about Spanish in the U.S.?

There’s a phrase in Spanish, sentimientos encontrados, that would most often be translated as “mixed feelings” in English. What’s interesting to me about the Spanish is that encontrar also means to meet or to find; for me, it conjures up an image of two feelings traveling in opposite directions around a circle until they find themselves approaching one another, scratching their heads, wondering how they got there.

I think the United States has sentimientos encontrados when it comes to Spanish. One of the areas that this is most evident is in education. Spanish is the most taught and most studied world language (other than English) at all levels of education here, yet at the same time there are many states and jurisdictions that have adopted or are attempting to adopt “English only” policies (1), some of which even prohibit the use of other languages in classrooms for children who are just learning English for the first time.

Some people are very concerned that children who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes will not learn English, despite research showing that this concern is essentially baseless (2), so they want to prevent them from maintaining or developing their Spanish skills. At the same time, there is a boom in Spanish immersion programs across the country (including West Michigan) to give children from English-speaking homes the gift of English-Spanish bilingualism. This is what scholars call “differential bilingualism” (3), and it is a perfect example of sentimientos encontrados.

On the other end of the spectrum, some jurisdictions — such as the District of Columbia where I used to live — have language access laws that require that government services be made available in the native languages of those with limited English skills. The people who benefit from language access laws are by and large first generation Americans, whose children will certainly learn English and will likely even prefer it over their parents’ language(s).

While speaking on the topic of language access, it seems that most of the Spanish in the U.S. that one encounters has been translated from English — whether it be IRS instructions on filling out a 1040, public health brochures at the hospital, or notices posted on the walls of the employee breakroom. There is some original Spanish content to be found in traditional and online media and the arts, but it is much harder to come by than Spanish that is the product of a translation (4).

Thinking about these phenomena has led me to ponder my own path. I’ve been studying, speaking, reading, writing, teaching, and researching Spanish for the past 26 years. I hold two degrees in Spanish. I have a business whose mission is to support the use of Spanish as a vibrant language for culture, commerce, and community building. I am speaking to my own infant son only in Spanish, for goodness’ sake!

What’s the point of caring so much about Spanish in the U.S.? Will the use of Spanish become passé if immigration from Spanish-speaking countries slows and younger generations don’t feel compelled to maintain it?

These questions get at the very core of my life’s work and vision, even my own identity. I don’t come from a family of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Nor am I a person of longstanding U.S. Latino heritage who has sought to “retro-acculturate” (5) through the Spanish language. If you had to put me in a category, you might put me in the same group as the many native English-speaking kids that are spending most of their formative years in Spanish immersion schools because their parents believe in the value of bilingualism.

I am a Spanish speaker. Just not the kind you typically think of when you hear that phrase.

Now, what kind of communities are we creating for Spanish speakers? Is the next generation of bilinguals — both native Spanish-speaking kids and kids who learn Spanish as a second language — supposed to abruptly stop using Spanish on a daily basis once they leave home or graduate from high school? In the U.S., outside of a few emblematic cities and neighborhoods, we aren’t very good at creating communities where adults can engage practically, culturally, and intellectually with Spanish in the real world.

And that just seems like a waste of resources and a whole lot of missed opportunities.

Instead, I think that we should work on intentionally building more bilingual institutions and spaces in our communities here in the U.S., not just translate our signs and our brochures. They say a suggestion without an offer to help is just a complaint — so through Tertulia, I’m going to try to start creating some of these spaces myself.

Stay tuned!

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-only_movement#Current_law
(2) Tse, Lucy. (2001). “Why don’t they learn English?”: Separating fact and fallacy in the U.S. language debate. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. & http://qz.com/771831/the-future-of-spanish-speaking-america-is-under-threat/
(3) Aparicio, F. (2000). Of Spanish dispossessed. In González, R. Dueñas & I. Melis (Eds.) Language ideologies: Critical perspectives on the Official English movement (pp. 248-275). Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.
(4) http://riuss.org/translation/
(5) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/future-of-the-us-economy-depend-on-hispanic-market-_n_1432109.html
(6) http://news.ets.org/news/bilingualism-a-growing-value-to-u.s.-labor-market


Special thanks to Espausa for sharing many of these thought-provoking links.