Saying Adios to Spanish?

The signs may say otherwise, but the language is slowly vanishing from Orange County.

Across from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Santa Ana is a sign that reads, “seguros de autos y registracion de vehiculos.” This is next door to the Broadway Caf, which advertises its salon para banquetes. Around the corner stands the Cristal Beauty Salon, which offers either a hair cut or a corte de pelo, and a travel agency named Viajes a Mexico or California Travel, depending on the sign.

Here, on Fourth Street, a block from the county government offices, it seems like the writing is literally on the wall. In restaurants, shops, parking garages and banks, the signs say, “Hablamos Espanol. ” What some cheer and others fear appears inevitable: a bilingual society.

It is a mirage.

The surge in immigration and births that will make Hispanics the largest single ethnic group in Orange County by 2016 will not strengthen the use of their native language here, researchers and linguists say. Spanish, as astounding as it sounds, is slowly dying in the United States.

“The talk of a bilingual society ignores the enormous power of American culture,” says Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy group in Washington, D.C. “Spanish has no chance.”

Rodriguez’s recent report on assimilation for the National Immigration Forum found that immigrants today actually learn English faster than previous generations. “At the turn of the century,” he writes, “an estimated 25 percent of the immigrant population could not speak English. In 1990, only 8 percent of all immigrants over the age of five could not speak English at all.”

Even on Fourth Street, there is evidence of language erosion, albeit subtle. At, an Internet caf, owner Jorge Martinez speaks English and Spanish to his customers. And though he considers being bilingual an economic asset, convincing young people to retain Spanish is difficult, he says.

“I have friends whose children don’t speak Spanish even though they do,” he says. “They don’t care too much about it.”

Ruben G. Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, has deemed the United States “a language graveyard,” in which no amount of native-language media or advertising can rescue Spanish.

“The prospects of fluent bilingualism for the third and fourth generations are slim to none for the most part,” says Rumbaut, principal investigator for the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, a report on second-generation immigrants in San Diego and other areas.

The explosion of Spanish-language newspapers, advertising and services in Southern California is a limited phenomenon, tied more to continued immigration rather than a Quebec-esque schism, Rodriguez adds.

There is a movement among activists and immigrant parents to keep Spanish alive, as a tool in the global economy and a facet of cultural pride. But without education, no amount of Spanish-language billboards or bilingual ATMs will elevate Spanish from the pantheon of tongues absorbed by America.

“No doubt about it, Spanish has more of a fighting chance than others to persist as a second language,” Rodriguez says. “But it will lose.”

Language absorption almost always follows a standard pattern in the United States, says Bonita Jaros, a professor of English as a second language at Santa Ana College.

The immigrant parents speak mainly the native tongue, as a bridge between their mother country and their children. The child, the second generation, usually speaks the native language fluently while learning English in school and on the streets. They may pass snippets of the immigrant language to their children, but “often, by the third generation, they just lose it,” Jaros says.

It’s a cycle repeated over and over again in American history, though cultural stamps persist. It’s difficult to find someone who speaks perfect Norwegian or Swedish in Minnesota, but for the holidays many families there serve pungent lutefisk. Germans quickly assimilated into Wisconsin communities, trying to escape prejudice because of World War I, but Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium still serves bratwurst. Yiddish newspapers are vanishing from New York, but even gentiles would say the dwindling, determined editors have chutzpah.

At a glance, Spanish appears to buck convention. Unlike other migrations, Hispanic immigrants have critical mass, proximity (in the case of Mexicans) and instant communication with extended families.

“They have cheap airfare, cheap telephones, it’s easier to stay in touch,” says Dave Thomas, general manager for Laguna Niguel-based Strategy Research Corporation West, group that puts out an annual Hispanic marketing study. Attitudes have shifted as well. “Up until World War II, it was a risk to speak Spanish in public in Texas,” he adds. Now some border towns conduct almost all business in the language.

While the circumstances have changed, though, the status of English has not. “By and large the attitude of parents haven’t changed. Their children must learn English first,” Thomas says.

Jose Morales, 21, is a typical product of this upbringing. The son of Mexican immigrants, the Santa Ana College sophomore uses Spanish at home and sometimes at work in a grocery store, but communicates mainly in English at school or among friends.

But he also holds an opinion that researchers say differs from previous generations. Rather than being ambivalent about his parents’ native tongue, Morales would like to pass Spanish down to his children. “It’s important these days to be bilingual,” he stresses.

This is easier said than done, however. Morales had little formal Spanish training growing up, and unless his children are taught the language in school, it’s doubtful they’ll hold onto it. With the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, which eliminated bilingual education before high school in most cases, that is a remote possibility.

“I couldn’t pick up English if all I did was talk to my mother in the kitchen,” Jaros says. “Are these kids fluent? Yes. Are they bilingual? No. They can’t write a business letter; with each generation the lexicon decreases and there are more grammatical errors.”

Fluency in Spanish degrades as soon as the second generation, Rodriguez says. “The average education of a Mexican immigrant is the fourth grade, and they’re teaching their children Spanish? No,” he says.

Even in Miami, where many Cuban immigrants are from middle- to upper-class families, the business community has complained about a lack of true bilingualism, Rodriguez adds.

The linguistic shift is noted in media. Spanish-language television channels such as Univision tend to appeal to new immigrants, both because of content and language choice, Rodriguez says.

Morales, the student, agrees. “I tend to watch television in English. There’s only two Spanish channels, and they’re not really for me.”

He does, however, listen to Spanish-language music, but even that medium is becoming more mixed. Alternative rock radio station Y-107 (107.1 FM) recently switched to a Spanish-language format, though it still hosts a Sunday night rock en Espanol program called the Red Zone, with DJs who speak English.

“I think the large majority of listeners are bilingual and appreciate both languages,” says Chelina Vargas, the show’s executive producer.

The adoption of English by Hispanic immigrants has caught the attention of businesses as well. Miller Genuine Draft is the only Red Zone advertiser with commercials in Spanish, but since most of the program’s listeners are younger, “it would be just as effective in English,” Vargas says.

John Gallegos, a vice president at Casanova Pendrill, an Irvine advertising agency, says cultural sensitivity is more important than language. Though most of the ads Pendrill produces are in Spanish, “you have to decide who you’re trying to reach,” he says.

A bank looking for older, first-generation immigrants would probably have a billboard in Spanish, for instance. Nike uses English, though it makes a point to feature soccer players.

Advertisers also have latched onto what some researchers call “Spanglish,” a byproduct of the linguistic transition. The spotty Spanish education of immigrant children leads to sentences such as “parque mi carro,” Jaros says, which “Spanglizes” the English words “park” and “car.”

Jaros points to a photo on her wall, of a billboard for Kentucky Fried Chicken in Santa Ana. “Lonchamos?” it asks, throwing an “o” and Spanish verb ending into the word “lunch.”

“This isn’t Spanish anymore,” she says, it’s an evolutionary step in assimilation.

Many linguists and economists bemoan this gradual erosion of the Spanish language in the United States. The primacy of English is never threatened, they say, by raising children who can speak two languages.

“A lot of people are uncomfortable with the demographic changes, but it’s not like immigrants have an allegiance to another country because they speak both Spanish and English,” says Fred Field, a linguist at California State University, Fullerton.italic

Research indicates that bilingual immigrants perform better on standardized tests and earn more money. A University of Miami study found that the average income of a Hispanic family of four in 1990 was $18,240 if they only spoke Spanish; $32,800 if only English; and $50,376 if both.

But the death of primary school bilingual education has all but killed early language training, putting all students — not just immigrants — at a disadvantage for learning another tongue.

“The best time to pick up another language is before puberty,” Jaros says. “It just gets harder and harder after that.”

Even if the willingness on the part of parents to teach two languages is there, meanwhile, cultural barriers are often high for children. Walter Enriquez, 23, a Peruvian immigrant who lives in Garden Grove, believes strongly in bilingualism, but finds it hard to convince his 12-year-old sister of the advantages.

“She only speaks Spanish to our aunt; she can’t read or write,” he says. “To tell the truth, she’s ashamed of it. She’d be the black sheep of her friends if she spoke Spanish around them.”

All of which does not mean bilingual billboards, ATMs and restaurant signs will go away any time soon. Spanish-language newspapers, radio stations and stores continue to be popular. But that’s only because immigration hasn’t slowed, researcher Rumbaut says.

“As long as you have sizable numbers of first-generation immigrant adults, you’ll have a market for (Spanish’s) use,” he says, “though not because of the suppose bilingualism of second generations.”

The use of Spanish in Orange County has reached a plateau, many researchers agree, as marketers target dense immigrant areas with native-language billboards, and most public services are bilingual. The question now is not whether English will remain the dominant — and probably only — language of the land; it’s how English will be affected by the chance.

Just as Spanglish absorbs Americanisms, so English will adopt more and more Spanish words over the next few decades, Jaros says. Already, cojones is starting to take its place beside chutzpah in the vernacular.

“That’s what’s so great about English — that’s why we shouldn’t be scared,” she says. “We have the richest vocabulary of almost any language, with more than 1 million words. We borrow easily.”


The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study examined the assimilation of second-generation immigrants in San Diego and other cities between 1992-96. It found that today’s immigrants, including Hispanics, are learning English and adapting to American culture faster than earlier generations. Some findings:

+Of Mexican-born children, 61 percent preferred speaking English; of U.S.-born children of Mexicans, 79 percent preferred English.

+By the end of high school, immigrant children were in general more fluent in English than in their parent’s language.

+The level of Spanish proficiency among second-generation immigrants indicates their children “will most likely speak English- only.”

+Of all those surveyed, 72 percent agreed that “there is no better country to live in than the United States.”

Comments are closed.