Thirteen-year-old Warren Valadez speaks English at school, but at home he speaks only Spanish to his Mexican immigrant parents.
The self-described Mexican-American youth is typical of U.S.-born Latinos throughout California: He’s bilingual and keenly aware of the importance of speaking two languages.
“English is more important here because you need it to get a job,” said Warren, who attends Memorial Academy in San Diego’s Logan Heights. “But Spanish is a very important part of my life. If I can’t speak Spanish, I can’t communicate with my family or my friends.” A survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week showed that California has the nation’s highest percentage — about 39 percent — of people who speak a language other than English at home.
About 12 million California residents fall into this category, including 7.8 million Spanish speakers, according to the 2000 Supplementary Survey. The pilot survey sampled 700,000 households in 1,200 counties nationwide.
In San Diego County, one-third of the population, or 841,379 people, speak another language, including 580,532 Spanish speakers.
Nationwide, only 17.6 percent speak other languages at home, according to the survey, which also gathered other data.
Immigrants account for a large share of California’s foreign-language speakers. More than 3.2 million immigrants, most of them from Latin America and Asia, settled in California during the 1990s, including 216,864 in San Diego County, the survey said.
But immigration only partially explains the Golden State’s language explosion. While almost 40 percent of the population speaks another language, only 26 percent are foreign-born. In San Diego County, the foreign-born population is even smaller, at 21 percent.
The language findings suggest that immigrants are teaching their native languages to their U.S.-born children, much as earlier emigrants from Europe did with their children, according to demographers. But the demographers said the majority of the immigrant families also understand the importance of speaking English.
“Most of these households are bilingual households,” said Scott Boggess, a Census Bureau demographer who specializes in language. “There’s only a small percentage where no one can speak English.”
Their English proficiency is often limited, however.
Nearly half the state’s foreign-language speakers don’t speak English “very well,” the survey said. In San Diego County, the figure is lower at 38 percent, or 320,163 people.
While California’s language diversity is celebrated, it is also criticized by English-only advocates who argue that linguistic separation threatens American unity.
“In a nation of immigrants, we have to define if we’re going to be an assimilationist society or a balkanized society,” said Jim Boulet, executive director of Virginia-based English First. The group opposes government-aided or required bilingual services, such as bilingual education and bilingual ballots.
Historically, the children of immigrant families usually lose their mother tongue by the third generation. But it is too early to tell whether Spanish will follow that pattern, said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California.
“The majority of emigrants from Mexico in the United States have come over in the last 20 years,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a large third generation to look at yet. It could go either way. The proximity to their country of origin, their contacts, the networks they maintain in their home countries could prolong the second language.
“On the other hand, it’s still true in California and the United States that to be successful economically, it helps to speak English. Immigrants without fail say they want their children to be fluent in English.”
UCLA demographer David Hayes-Bautista doesn’t believe Spanish will fade, even though he hails from a generation of Mexican-Americans who tended to speak only English.
“Things have changed,” said Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California Los Angeles.
“Most of my generation, the one that grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, was not fluent in Spanish,” he said. “Our parents had been through the deportations of the 1930s, and they did not want to teach their children Spanish. In school we were punished if we spoke Spanish.
“What happened was we had significant immigration from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, and these immigrants changed things. They created a market for Spanish media. Longtime Mexican-Americans or Chicanos also sought to recapture the language of their parents.”
Spanish is the first language Warren Valadez heard and learned to speak.
His mother, who speaks limited English, said she is glad her five U.S.-born children learned her native tongue first because they learned English in school and are now fully bilingual.
“They were born here. They have to do better than me,” said Reyna Valadez, who works in the cafeteria at Memorial Academy. “That’s why they speak two languages. They’ll have more opportunities.”
Leonel Sanchez: (619) 542-4568; [email protected]