Does someone have to speak Spanish in order to be considered Hispanic? Most Latinos say no – but at the same time, they think it is important that future generations of Hispanics do speak the language.
Those are among the findings of a Pew Research Center report released this week about U.S. Latinos and their views of, and experiences with, the Spanish language. The report also found that more than half of Latinos who don’t speak Spanish well – especially young Latinos – have been shamed by other Latinos for it.
The center found that while three-quarters of Latinos say they can speak Spanish at least pretty well, nearly four in five (78%) didn’t consider speaking Spanish a necessary component of being Hispanic.
“There’s a desire to maintain the language but a recognition that not all of us speak the language, so what are you going to do?” said Laura Muñoz, an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Disqualify those people from participation?”
What do Latinos say about who can be considered Hispanic?
Spanish-dominant Latinos were more likely (34%) than bilingual (22%) and English-dominant Latinos (6%) to say the ability to speak the language is essential to Latino identity, according to the survey. The survey of 3,029 nationally representative Latinos was conducted in August 2022.
“There’s a lot more pride in Latino identity and in Spanish speaking, but that pride doesn’t necessarily translate to language fluency and literacy,” Muñoz said. “It’s very difficult given the Americanization we experience in contemporary U.S. society.”
Native language ability tends to dissipate in the U.S. as first-generation immigrants give way to subsequent generations. The second generation tends to be bilingual; the third is mostly English-speaking, and so on.
The pattern isn't without pain: A 2021 study by professors at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Iowa State University in Ames described the first phase as “shared language erosion,” a process in which the children of immigrants “improve their English skills while simultaneously losing or failing to develop their heritage language.”
Meanwhile, as their parents are slower to learn English, the bond of common language erodes, which can produce conflict, diminish parental effectiveness and leave kids more susceptible to negative influences.
Hispanics were punished for speaking Spanish at school
Experts note that the loss of Spanish reflects the lingering pressures of a stubbornly monolinguistic nation with a long history of efforts to penalize non-English speakers in schools and society.
In Arizona, for instance, English literacy tests were required in order to vote for much of the 20th century, and public school teachers in the American Southwest employed corporal punishment to keep Spanish-speaking children from speaking their native tongue.
As a result, many Hispanics who lived through those experiences chose not to teach their children Spanish, to save them the humiliation they endured.
“It’s important to understand the history of linguistic discrimination, the way that Spanish was eradicated from Latino families,” said Lillian Gorman, an assistant professor and director of the Spanish as a Heritage Language program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “You have these intergenerational stories where it wasn’t a choice to have this language loss occur.”
Many Latinos criticized for speaking Spanish in public
Acts of anti-Spanish bias continue today, even as the language pervades American pop culture in advertising, music and film. In Texas, the League of United Latin American Citizens called for banning a female substitute high school teacher after a video showing her telling a student to “speak English – we’re in America” went viral in 2019. That same year, in West Virginia, another video captured a woman berating a Mexican restaurant manager for the same reason.
A 2022 Pew report found that about one in four (23%) of U.S. Latinos said they had been criticized for speaking Spanish in public.
“We live in a country that doesn’t value multilingualism,” Gorman said. “People value being monolingual – that’s the norm, that everybody speaks English.”
Lourdes Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul University in Chicago, said whenever she encounters second- and third-generation Latinos who can still speak Spanish, “I consider them heroes because they’ve gone against all these forces. Unfortunately, in our country, it takes a heroic effort to maintain your native language. It’s a real act of resistance.”
Hispanics want to talk to their grandparents in Spanish
About 75% of U.S. Hispanics say they can carry on a conversation in Spanish at least pretty well, the latest Pew survey found.
Muñoz, author of the forthcoming “Desert Dreams: Mexican Arizona and the Politics of Educational Equality,” said that while some of her Latino students have said publicly that speaking Spanish isn’t a necessary part of being Latino, they’ve privately communicated the opposite.
Those students, she said, aren’t necessarily considering the historical context of losing their language but rather the immediate effects of that loss.
“It’s the inability to communicate with their grandparents, or the local restaurant owner,” Muñoz said. “That’s the immediate loss you feel, and it’s hard to overcome.”
Latino Republicans and Democrats embrace Spanish
While most Latinos may not equate Spanish proficiency with identity, it doesn’t mean they don’t value the language.
About two thirds (64%) of U.S. Latinos consider it very or extremely important that future generations speak the language, the Pew survey found. However, that desire fades with assimilation.
Nearly four in five foreign-born Latinos (78%) said it was very or extremely important that future generations speak Spanish, compared to just 51% of U.S.-born Latinos.
Among the latter group, 62% of second-generation Latinos said it was very or extremely important; that portion fell by nearly half among Latinos of third generation or higher (32%).
Latino Democrats were more likely (88%) than Latino Republicans (80%) to say it was at least somewhat important that future generations of Latinos speak the language, the survey found, with 36% of Latino Democrats saying it was extremely important compared to 26% of Latino Republicans.
Differences were evident among those of varying heritage, too: 79% of Latinos of Central American background said it was very or extremely important that future generations speak Spanish, significantly higher than South Americans (65%), Mexicans (64%), Cubans (63%) and Puerto Ricans (59%).
Experts say Spanish should be taught in schools
Torres, of DePaul University, said preserving the language will require a change in U.S. attitudes about bilingualism.
“We have to mount a full-court press to make that happen,” Torres said. “It’s not going to happen naturally because mama and papa speak Spanish; it means you have to come up with a plan.”
One means, she said, is through dual-language programs, which are increasing in American schools as research indicates learning in two languages can boost student performance. The American Councils Research Center tallied more than 3,600 such programs nationwide in 2021, 80% of them serving students from Spanish-speaking families.
Meanwhile, “heritage learning” programs like the one that Gorman oversees at the University of Arizona offer Spanish instruction for those who, for instance, grew up in bilingual households but lack a full grasp of the language.
“They’re designed for those who grew up around Spanish but don’t have all the skills,” Gorman said. “The idea is to make sure students feel pride in their language and where they came from.”
Previously, Gorman, who is from New Mexico, helped direct a heritage program for Spanish speakers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she found that the experiences shared by some students echoed key elements of her own background.
“Students born in Chicago whose parents had immigrated from Mexico were having the same experiences with bilingualism that my grandparents had,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Think of me as what your grandkids will be like.’ And they can still draw power from that.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Hispanic? Why speaking Spanish in the US is not a requirement