A study released by the Pew Hispanic Center in November reports that English fluency increases across generations, even in first-generation monolingual Spanish-speaking families. Furthermore, by the third generation, Spanish has all but faded into the background.
While those who arrive in the U.S. as adults may always struggle with learning English, their children either grow up bilingual or use English as their dominant language at the expense of Spanish.
The Process of Language Shifting
Language shift refers to the process in which a speech community moves from predominantly speaking one language to another. We can view this process both across the lifetime of an individual and also across generations.
The first generation to arrive in the U.S. will continue to speak Spanish, however most also use English regularly. Arrivals under 14 make English their every day language, and Spanish becomes a second language.
Children of first-generation immigrants almost always speak English predominantly, although Spanish may be their second language.
Almost all grandchildren of immigrants will have English as their mother tongue, and rarely speak Spanish, if at all.
(Source: Santiestevan, Stina; “Use of the Spanish Language in the United States: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities”)
Spanish as a Threat?
If it’s clear that Latino immigrants and their descendents shift to English both within a lifetime and across generations, why do people get so angry about the availability of written materials and services in Spanish?
Well, because of the direct link to continued use of Spanish with continued immigration, both legal and illegal. If there were no Latino immigrants arriving in the U.S., the use of Spanish would ultimately disappear over a few generations. But the process of language shifting is constantly being renewed, as successive waves of immigrants arrive.
Those who object to the use of Spanish in the States are really objecting to an entire group of people and their presence here. The simplistic English-only movement is entirely rooted in xenophobia and racism.
What Can Good Translations Do in the Meantime?
There’s no denying that Spanish translations serve an important role in the United States, primarily for recent immigrants. Providing translations can: facilitate completion of paperwork, increase comprehension of complicated materials by English language learners, encourage knowledge of and adherence to safety procedures in the workplace, and reach out to the largest minority group to market products and services.