Se habla Espanol?

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Esther Cepeda
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
— Not a day goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I can think, read, write and converse in two different languages. It may not seem like much to some, but it has opened many doors for me. I fear that not enough young Latinos will have the same opportunities.

While I recognize public schools’ challenges in educating students whose native language is not English, I worry about the many Spanish-speaking families who do not share their language with their children. Latinos cannot risk losing the tremendous opportunity to boost the United States’ ability to compete in a global economy where, by 2050, fully 10 percent of the world population will speak Spanish.

Because I’m going to come down on Latino families who don’t insist on immersing their children in Spanish at home, I’d better start with myself.

My oldest son was a Latino stereotype at birth. Born premature and underweight to a young, poor Hispanic mother, he had developmental delays in walking and talking. Specialist after specialist implored my family to stick to one language, though as time passed we even had to learn some sign language to communicate with our tongue-tied boy.

Despite my best intentions, by the time the kid started chattering in English like any normal 3-year-old, the die had been cast. All his life, he’d heard only English from his bilingual mother and grandparents and his English-speaking father. Family life irretrievably cemented itself in the only language all five of us shared.

Other Latino parents aren’t so different. Like me, they’re married to a non-Spanish-speaker or believe they’re doing their children a service by letting them put all their efforts into mastering English. Some consciously decide to speak only English at home. When I compared the Pew Hispanic Center’s “Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States” from 2006 to the recent 2009 version, I found that in three short years, the percentage of children and adults who report speaking only English at home had risen—in both U.S. born and foreign-born Latino households.

Sometimes, education level is a hurdle. When I was a teacher in a community where families had come to this country from the poorest parts of Latin America, I learned that many parents themselves had little or no formal Spanish-language instruction. They spoke a slang-based Spanish that their children grew up understanding but had little non-social value.

Also, there has been hubbub across the country over whether Latino students should be allowed to use Spanish to fulfill their high school foreign language credit requirements, the assumption being that because Spanish isn’t actually a foreign language to Hispanic students, this creates an unfair advantage over non-Latino classmates.

It’s generally a non-issue. Save for a minority of lucky kids with well-educated parents at home demanding excellence in two languages, the playing field is depressingly level. In fact, in talking to Spanish teachers, I’ve heard more than once that it’s easier to teach a blank-slate student than one who has spent a lifetime listening to regional Spanish vernacular. We’ll see how it goes when my son starts his school’s Spanish courses next year.

Along with the 10 percent statistic I mentioned earlier, Cuban academic Humberto Lopez Morales recently told the Association of Spanish Language Academies that by the year 2050, the U.S. will have the highest population of Spanish speakers, making it the biggest Spanish-speaking country.

Maybe. Despite the upward trend in English-only households, three-quarters of the 43 million Hispanics in Pew’s 2009 report said they spoke Spanish at home.

But will these speakers be able to read, write and converse with correct Spanish? Will those skills translate into a competitive advantage as they begin professional lives?

Judging from the steady stream of Latino bloggers who post their stories of difficulty learning their parents’ language, who wonder if they are bilingual enough—or Latino enough if they don’t speak Spanish—and post tips and tricks for “passing” as a Spanish-speaker, it looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Both Latinos and non-Latino adults must encourage, insist or demand that our Hispanic youth acquire perfect English skills—and then aim higher.

We cannot let the next generation squander this unique opportunity—Hispanics’ future prosperity will depend on knowing both the native language of their parents and their own.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 4:51 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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