US Latinos lose Spanish over time, study finds
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 6, 2006

Yvonne Wingett and Matt Dempsey

Jessica Olguin dances salsa and cumbia. She belongs to a Latino-based club at Phoenix College, and most of her friends are Hispanic.

But the 19-year-old Latina doesn't speak Spanish.

"I've even taken Spanish classes to learn," the central Phoenix student said. "It kind of seems like I'm not taking a part of my past, my ancestry with me because my parents didn't teach it to me." Hispanics such as Olguin are quickly losing Spanish with each generation in the United States, according to a new study, and the grandchildren of immigrants are likely to speak only English. By the third generation, only 17 percent of Hispanics speak Spanish fluently, and by the fourth generation, it drops to 5 percent.

The study challenges the perception that Hispanics resist learning English and that heavy immigration from Spanish-speaking countries threatens the American identity.

Many Arizonans are frustrated with the use of Spanish on billboards, in grocery stores, on television and automated phone messages. Critics say Spanish slows acculturation by allowing Hispanic immigrants to exist in Spanish-speaking worlds.

Researchers at the University of California-Irvine and Princeton University surveyed Hispanics from Southern California. The findings are relevant in Arizona because the death of the mother tongue among multigenerational Hispanics mirrors the experiences of other immigrant groups in the U.S., including White Europeans and Chinese. Arizona is home to an estimated 1.6 million Hispanics, including an estimated 500,000 immigrants.

Losing the language
"The United States is a language graveyard," said Rubén Rumbaut, a UC-Irvine sociology professor and co-author of the study "Linguistic Life
Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention in Southern California."

"The shift (toward English only) is rapid, and it's essentially complete by the third generation," he said.

First-generation Latinos, those born outside the U.S., bring their languages with them. The size of the Hispanic immigrant group in Arizona, coupled with Spanish-language media, including TV, radio, newspapers and Web sites, helps them maintain the language. Spanish is typically spoken in the home, at work and with family and friends.

Their children are known as second generation. They tend to be bilingual, speaking Spanish in the home and with family, and English in school, at work and with friends. Among the second generation with at least one parent from Mexico, about 35 percent speak Spanish well, according to the study.

Third-generation Hispanics are overwhelmingly English-only. Just 17 percent with three or four foreign-born grandparents speak Spanish fluently. Five percent of third-generation Latinos with one or two foreign-born grandparents speak Spanish.

"When you are immersed economically, socially and culturally in a culture that speaks a different language, it's only a matter of time until you lose language," said pollster Earl de Berge of Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center.

The Latino language experience may be different from earlier immigrant groups, he said, because of its sheer size and access to Spanish-language media. Also, de Berge said, it could take longer for Spanish to fade if heavy immigration from Mexico and Latin America continues.

Third-generation Hispanic David Cervantes was raised speaking English as a kid in California and heard Spanish only when his bilingual parents and grandparents talked to each other. The Phoenix librarian learned Spanish in high school.

"They spoke fluent English," Cervantes, 51, said of his parents. "Everything was taught in English, and they didn't want to go against that."

The bottom line, Rumbaut said, is English triumphs: "The grandchildren of
the immigrants end up speaking English only. They may end up retaining a few
little vestiges {ellipsis} like muchas gracias. But they cannot carry a
conversation or write a business letter."

Language fights
In Arizona, Spanish has become a flashpoint.

An initiative on the November ballot would make English the state's official

The Legislature and Gov. Janet Napolitano have sparred repeatedly over how
much money should be spent to help students learn English.

Many Arizonans complain that Spanish radio, TV and newspapers are altering
American culture.

Try telling that to third-generation Hispanics like Corina Rodriguez. She
can pick up and speak only a few common words and phrases when her friends
speak Spanish. ¿Cómo estás? How are you? Buenos dias. Good morning. And
adiós. Goodbye.

"I didn't question my parents until maybe the end of high school," the
25-year-old Tempe social worker said. "I was like, 'Why didn't you guys
teach me?' Their answer was, 'We were never taught.' "

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4712.