Why English dominates

Language shift is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Rather, it is a consequence of cultural forces that pressure speakers to give up one language to get another. These forces include restrictive language laws that formally prohibit the use of Spanish in educational or government settings, as Farmers Branch, Texas, did for 11 years.

Schools also drive the three-generation pattern. Even though Latin American parents often speak to their US-born children in Spanish, those children almost invariably attend English-only schools.

There, they learn that academic success is achieved in English. As a result, first-generation children expand their vocabularies and literacy practices in English, not in Spanish.

They may also encounter negative attitudes toward Spanish from teachers and peers. For example, in October 2017, a New Jersey high school teacher was caught on video reprimanding three students for speaking Spanish, encouraging them, instead, to speak “American.” That no such language exists is beside the point—her message was clear.

Social pressure to speak English is so great that Latino immigrant parents may notice resistance to using Spanish at home as early as kindergarten. A generation later, though grandparents may continue to use Spanish in the home, grandchildren will often respond to them in English.

The numerous blogs, websites and guides dedicated to helping Latino parents navigate this bilingual terrain indicate just how common language shift is.

Indeed, when I ask my own Latino students about when they speak what to whom, the answer is almost always the same: Spanish with elders, English with everyone else.

This pattern seems to hold in small towns and big cities, on the East Coast and on the West, and in towns with large and small Latino populations. From Chicago to Southern California, children of Spanish-speaking immigrants become English-dominant.

The Spanish-to-English shift even occurs in Miami, where over 65 percent of the population is Latino and where speaking Spanish has clear economic benefits. That’s why Miami struggles to find enough Spanish-speaking teachers to staff its public schools.

English on the rise

Spanish isn’t the only immigrant language that has struggled to keep a foothold in the US. Germans, Italians, Poles and Swedes went through similar language shifts in the 19th and 20th centuries. These languages, too, were sometimes seen as a threat to American identity in their time.

Then as now, American anxiety about the role of English in US society was totally unfounded. In the roughly 150,000-year history of human language, there has never been a more secure tongue than English.

More people worldwide do speak Mandarin and Spanish as their first language. But with some 400 million first language speakers and more than 500 million adoptive English speakers, English has a global standing enjoyed by none of the roughly 6,000 other languages spoken worldwide. It has been that way for about half a century.

If Latino immigration declines markedly in the US, language shift may actually lead Spanish to disappear across America. English, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere fast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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