ERIC Identifier: ED335176
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Author: Santiestevan, Stina
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Use of the Spanish Language in the United States: Trends,
Challenges, and Opportunities. ERIC Digest.
Continuing controversy about the nation's non-English speakers--particularly
its Spanish speakers--often prompts two questions. First, will the use
of Spanish diminish or grow more widespread? Second, is the use of the
Spanish language only a challenge for educators and citizens, or does it
also present opportunities as yet unrealized?
This Digest addresses policymakers, administrators, and teachers of
Spanish-speaking students. It is based largely on a study by sociologist
Calvin Veltman (1988), The Future of the Spanish Language in the United
States. The Digest examines the Spanish-speaking group in the United States,
its growth through net immigration and natural increase, and its eventual
decline as speakers shift to English.
Not all U.S. Hispanics speak Spanish, of course, but almost all U.S.
Spanish speakers are Hispanic, and the Hispanic population is growing rapidly.
In 1989, the nation's Hispanic population was estimated to be 20.1 million,
a 39 percent increase over the 1980 Census figure of 14.5 million. The
rate of increase for the total U.S. population was 9.5 percent, but for
the non-Hispanic population it was 7.5 percent. Hispanics were 8.2 percent
of the population in 1989, compared to 6.5 percent in 1980 (Hispanic Policy
Development Project, 1990).
The Hispanic Policy Development Project (HPDP, 1990) has projected the
following U.S. Hispanic population figures:
1995: 27,692,000, and
Due to immigration and natural increase, the number of U.S. Spanish
speakers will continue to grow (for example, Word, 1989), but the recent
study by Veltman (1988) sharply contradicts the widespread impression that
Hispanic immigrants to the United States resist learning English.
Despite public opinion to the contrary, the data suggest that U.S. Hispanics--both
native born and immigrants--do learn and speak English. Moreover, they
want their children to speak English (Veltman, 1988). After 10 to 15 years
in the United States, some 75 percent of all Hispanic immigrants are speaking
English regularly, and virtually all their children will speak English.
The maintenance of Spanish language use in the United States depends
on the continuous arrival of new Hispanic immigrants. Because of ongoing
immigration, bilingualism may indeed persist longer among Hispanics than
it did among other immigrant groups, particularly in certain parts of the
country. But continuing immigration does not delay the learning of English
by immigrants who are already here or by the native born (Veltman, 1988).
Veltman developed unique population models simulating the flow of immigrants
and their children into national language communities. His model is similar
to that used by the U.S. Census Bureau (for example, U.S. Bureau of the
Census, 1982), but adds language practice and language change factors (Veltman,
1988, chapter 10). Although he analyzes much of the language data collected
by the Census Bureau, his projections are based largely on data derived
from the Bureau's 1976 Survey of Income and Education. This survey contains
the best available data for both mother tongue and current language use.
In 1976, some 10.5 million people in the United States spoke Spanish.
Of these, only about 4.5 million were mainly Spanish-speaking, including
2 million who spoke Spanish only occasionally. However, some of those who
have shifted to English were not counted; lost to the surveys are Hispanics
who speak English and live in households where English is the principal
home language. They likely have been classified as "Anglophones," persons
of English mother tongue in Veltman's terminology. ("Mother tongue" is
the language first learned and spoken as a child.)
Using a model that projects a net Hispanic immigration of 250,000 per
year, Veltman predicts that the Spanish-speaking group, both monolingual
and bilingual, will total 16.6 million by the year 2001 (Veltman, 1988,
p. 102). Of these, some 95 percent of the immigrant population will have
Spanish for their mother tongue. However, only a bare majority of the native
born will be given Spanish as their first language. This fact is of pivotal
DO THEY LEARN AND USE ENGLISH?
How rapidly individuals learn English and how much English they speak
is related to how long they have been in the United States and how old
they were when they arrived. Almost all Hispanic immigrants remain lifetime
bilinguals; they use different languages in different situations. But the
language shift process begins immediately upon an immigrant's arrival in
the U.S., progresses rapidly, and ends within approximately 15 years. The
younger the person, the more complete is the movement to English (Garcia,
1983; Veltman, 1988).
With respect to immigrant children, 70 percent of those 5 to 9 years
of age, after a stay of about 9 months, speak English on a regular basis.
After 4 years, nearly all speak English regularly, and about 30 percent
prefer English to Spanish. After 9 years, 60 percent have shifted to English;
after 14 years--as young adults--70 percent have abandoned the use of Spanish
as a daily language. By the time they have spent 15 years in the United
States, some 75 percent of all Hispanic immigrants are using English every
day (Veltman, 1988, p. 44).
The future of the Spanish language in the U.S. depends on the language
choices of persons of Spanish mother tongue; what language will they give
to their children? The use of English by parents leads inexorably to the
birth of children whose mother tongue becomes English (Garcia, 1983; Veltman,
THE LANGUAGE-SHIFT PROCESS
Like the language shift of immigrants before them, that of Spanish-speaking
immigrants spans three generations.
* The generation of immigrants continues to speak Spanish, although
most also speak English regularly. More than half the immigrants arriving
in the United States before age 14 make English their usual everyday language,
and Spanish becomes a second language. A small number, in fact, no longer
speak it at all.
* Their children speak English fluently, although they may use Spanish
as a second language. A significant number, however, are given English
as their mother tongue, and 7 out of 10 become English speakers for all
* Virtually all their grandchildren will have English for their mother
tongue, and they will speak Spanish seldom, if at all.
Thus, the maintenance of Spanish language use in the U.S. requires a
continuous flow of new Hispanic immigrants. According to Veltman's model,
a break in the immigrant stream would stabilize the size of the Spanish-speaking
population for about 15 years. After such a break, decline would become
increasingly more rapid.
Given the inevitable shift of Spanish speakers to the use of English,
what are the policy implications? They entail several conclusions and recommendations
(Estrada, 1988; Veltman, 1988), as follows.
* The English language is not endangered by the use of Spanish.
* Simple courtesy suggests that essential public announcements and services
should be provided in Spanish, especially for the very young and the elderly.
* Many more English classes for adults are needed. Current waiting lists
are long in many communities--notably in New York City and Los Angeles--with
large and growing concentrations of Hispanics.
* Spanish-speaking children need bilingual education.
* Bilingual capabilities should be encouraged generally--among everyone,
regardless of mother tongue.
Bilingual education programs do not slow the process of language shift
to English (HPDP, 1988; Veltman, 1988). The purpose of such programs, after
all, is to smooth the transition to English, not to maintain Spanish.
But bilingual classes do enable Hispanic children to maintain their
grade levels and to avoid being held back, while at the same time learning
English (Veltman, 1983). The children will--in any case--learn English,
but, according to the Hispanic Policy Development Project:
"These children are best served by programs that teach English and simultaneously
develop basic reading and computation skills in Spanish....At present,
less than a quarter of Hispanic children who need language assistance are
enrolled in transitional bilingual or other programs designed to expedite
language shift and provide basic skills education." (HPDP, 1988, pp. 9,
Nicolau and Valdivieso (1988) report that 25 percent of Hispanic students
fall behind their classmates and are overage as they begin high school.
According to this account, poor academic performance and being older in
grade than their peers contribute significantly to the high Hispanic dropout
rates of 45 to 50 percent.
Nicolau and Valdivieso also suggested that the bilingual capabilities
of the nation's Spanish speakers, currently scorned, should be put to use.
By some estimates, there will be 550 million Spanish-speaking consumers
in Latin America by the year 2000. With some foresight, the U.S. economy
and national influence could be enhanced by the preservation of a pool
of literate Spanish speakers. Data from the National Center for Education
Statistics show, however, that only 4 percent of Hispanic students sign
up for the three years of high school Spanish that would develop the necessary
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Rivera Center Report, Vol. 1, No. 1). Claremont, CA: Tomas Rivera Center.
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Nicolau, S., & Valdivieso, R. (1988). The Veltman report: What it
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Veltman, C. (1983). Language Shift in the United States. Amsterdam,
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Word, D. (1989). Population Estimates by Race and Hispanic Origin for
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