According to Babbel magazine, a publication owned by the people running the language learning application by the same name, Spanish is the second most spoken language with 460 million native speakers. However, a total of 74 million more people speak Spanish from learning later on, accounting for a total of 534 million people speaking the language. Although the language is widely spoken and ranked high among a number of lists, I have noticed a pattern of less and less Latinx people and Hispanics being able to fluently speak Spanish.
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I was raised by a mother from Panama City, Panama. My father, who was raised in West Virginia, met my mother while stationed at a base located in Panama. He learned to speak Spanish in two months just so he could marry and have a life with my mother. Because my father learned to speak Spanish, my mother was in no rush to learn English. When my twin brother and I were born, my mother still did not speak much English; therefore, we were mostly raised in a Spanish-speaking household. Luckily, being raised in a bilingual household allowed my brother and me to speak both English and Spanish today.
For the longest time, I was proud of being bilingual. However, as I met more and more Spanish-speaking people and continued to progress in my education, I learned that I was not the best at speaking Spanish. Although I was raised with the language, I will admit today that I am not the most fluent due to my lack of knowledge of Spanish grammar. When I speak Spanish, the sentence structure and grammar tenses tend to be incorrect. I understand that I speak the language well enough to survive in a Spanish-speaking country, and my family members and friends do understand me when I talk to them, but that does not rid my shame for not speaking “perfect” Spanish.
I have concluded the reason for my lack of fluency correlates with the fact that I was raised in the United States where learning English is prioritized. When attending school, I had to speak better English in order to pass each grade and make friends. As well, despite having moved often when younger and attending various schools, I was raised in mostly English-speaking neighborhoods with not many Latinx people to befriend and talk with. Thus, I was surrounded by English aside from when I was home with my mother. She was the only main source of Spanish in my life. This situation stunted my fluency with one of my native tongues, and now I deal with the shame that, perhaps, I am not Latina enough.
Later, I learned that I am not alone in feeling this way. When arriving at Florida State University, I was invited to join the Oscar Arias Sanchez Hispanic Honor Society. At a general body meeting, a member shared guilt for not knowing enough Spanish. She stated that often she is embarrassed to admit being a Latina due to her lack of fluency. Having thought I was alone in feeling this way, I was washed with relief when realizing many of the members shared the same sentiment. That night, I researched more about the feeling, and I was amazed to know many teenagers and young adults struggle with the same feeling. I even found a video uploaded by Pero Like in which five people discussed the question of whether or not a person is Latino enough if the person does not speak Spanish.
Being so interested in the concept and also believing it’s a topic to be openly discussed more often, I decided to conduct a survey in order to hear more thoughts. I wanted to reflect on more ideas shared by other young adults. However, I also wanted to see whether or not the lack of Spanish fluency in today’s teenagers and young adults correlates with former prejudice faced beforehand, as well as prejudice existing in today’s society. This semester I took a course titled Studies in Ethnic Literature with assistant professor John Ribó where an emphasis on Latinx culture was studied through novels, television shows, articles and films.
One novel caught my attention the most, however, relating to my thoughts concerning Spanish fluency today. Raining Backwards by Roberto Fernandez discusses the English-Only Movement that arose in the 1960s in response to an influx of Spanish-speaking people immigrating to the United States. Governments called for English to be the only official language in a country often referred to as a melting pot. The mention of this movement made me wonder whether the event had an influence on whether or not parents would teach their children Spanish in a country where Spanish was not welcomed in the past—or even today.
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In my survey shared with friends as well as on Facebook and Instagram, I asked Latinx people—who do not speak Spanish at all or who do not speak “perfect” Spanish—to complete 25 questions. However, participants were able to skip questions if any questions made them uncomfortable. The questions were either multiple choice or short answer, and there were three sections. One section asked for information regarding their background, the second section focused on the frequency of the Spanish language surrounding them, while the third section asked more personal questions wondering what they personally believe is a cause of their lack of fluency. A total of 14 people took the survey. Out of the 14 people, 11 were females while three were males.
One question asked what their Latinx ethnicity is, and the answers varied with Cuban, Mexican, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Guatemalan ethnicities. 10 of the people who took the survey also stated that both parents are from Latinx backgrounds, while four participants responded with only one parent belonging to a Latinx ethnicity. I was also impressed to learn that half of those who took the survey responded by admitting that Spanish is not often spoken at home, and only three responded by saying it is spoken very often.
When asked, “Are you part of any Latinx focused organizations on campus? If Yes, which organization(s)? If No, is there a reason why?”, one person responded by stating they are not because they “don’t feel super included in the Latin community.” Another person responded by saying “I was in HLSU in Freshman year but dropped because I was struggling to make friends and [fit] in. The same went for the Puerto Rican Student Association because I found it hard to stay on top of meetings and [make] friends when I didn’t speak Spanish. They would often say things like “If you don’t know (Spanish phrase) then you’re not Puerto Rican.” A third person responded similarly as well by commenting on how they feel as if by not speaking Spanish they are not “cultured” enough to be part of the organization. Each response is something I relate to which adds to the guilt and shame I have for my lack of fluency while being a Latina.
Further in the survey, I asked whether it’s more common to hear Spanglish spoken at home as opposed to English or Spanish only, and I was surprised to see that 11 people responded with “yes.” Hearing Spanglish—which is a combination of Spanish and English—can explain why when we do speak Spanish, it’s broken due to borrowing English sentence structures, grammar or vocabulary.
One question, though, that I would like to reflect upon asks: “Do you feel as if prejudice toward the Latinx community in the United States impact[s] why today [fewer] people speak fluent Spanish?” Some responses received include:
“Yes, I also think one of the reasons why I don’t speak Spanish is because my mother and other family members unconsciously suppressed their culture in public.”
“Definitely, I can see it in my younger brother too. He refuses to learn it because he sees no purpose in it since people don’t want him speaking it.”
“I feel that it can in some areas, as a parent or parents may want to have their kid integrate. Other times I feel it has to do with coming from a household where only one parent speaks Spanish (my experience), which can make it difficult for the parent to be consistent with speaking the language when everything else surrounding them/the child is in English.”
“I do. People who speak Spanish are often believed to be immigrants or undocumented and that’s completely false. Speaking Spanish brings a negative connotation (often from white people) which is why some people do not speak it.”
“I believe it is a combination of assimilation and prejudice that has impacted [fewer] people speaking fluent Spanish. The need to speak your host [country’s] language is highly stressed in America to the point that [it] is highly looked down upon if you don’t.”
“Absolutely, a lot of families are concerned about assimilation.”
These six responses indicate that prejudice toward Latinx people does, in fact, influence the learning of Spanish in today’s society. On the phone the other day, I asked my mother about a family friend we knew long ago in Mississippi. The woman was a good friend of my mother, and they got along because both mothers were from Panama. The friend, though, never taught her children to speak Spanish. I asked my mother why that would be the case for many of her friends, and she replied in a way that aligns with my original thought: “Tal vez porque viven en Estados Unidos o porque tienen miedo por sus hijos.”
From the survey conducted, I learned that a number of Latinx people who do not speak Spanish or not “perfectly” want to be proud of their Latinx identity; however, it proves to be difficult when there is a lack of fluency. The shame and guilt prevent them from being proud. Despite learning some of the language from family, the environment has a strong emphasis on learning English only. The emphasis of English influences the lack of fluency in Spanish, and, because of that, many Latinx teenagers and young adults struggle with their identity.
Although the English-Only Movement is not being pushed today as it was in the ‘60s, other movements similar to the English-Only Movement exist in today’s society. In my opinion, each movement of prejudice toward the Latinx community and Spanish language lessen the fluency of Spanish for children. Fewer and fewer parents will want to teach their children Spanish because of the fear they underwent for speaking the language. Parents will not want their children to undergo the same fear. Rather than fear, the children will have to question their Latinx identity while struggling with shame and guilt. This is what I see with friends and classmates, and it’s the thought shared by the 14 people who took the survey. What is happening in the environment does, indeed, influence the feelings and efforts toward learning Spanish and being a Latinx person.
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I want to thank everyone who took the survey and shared their thoughts and feelings. This article was written in an effort to open up the discussion as well as to state that many Latinx people feel the same way regarding this topic. I also want to say, no matter how much Spanish you speak—even if it’s none at all—you are a Latinx person. Be proud.