How are Californians going to save Spanish?

Yes, I know that a call to preserve the Spanish language might seem ludicrous in a state whose very name comes from a Spanish romance novel. Nearly half of us are either from the Spanish-speaking world, or trace our heritage there. We constantly hear Spanish—in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and in our media; an estimated 38 percent of Californians speak Spanish (the second highest percentage after New Mexico). In the U.S. more than 37 million people now speak Spanish, up from 11 million in 1980.

And yes, my question about saving Spanish may seem especially daft now, as America’s deranged politics pit Trumpian xenophobia, with its fear of being overrun by foreigners and their languages, against liberal triumphalism about growing diversity. 

But—and I speak to that small, hardy tribe of Americans who still prefer to be ruled by facts and not fears—the realities of immigration, education and language acquisition put the lie to the notion that Spanish has nowhere to go but up. To the contrary, there are clear signs that the Spanish language has already begun its decline. Which is why Californians, who have long benefited from our state’s bilingualism, should start thinking now about how we are going to preserve it.

Spanish is confronting what might be called the “Three Generation Death” law of non-English languages here. German, Italian, and Polish all but disappeared after three generations—a first, immigrant generation that learned some English, a second, U.S.-born bilingual generation that lost its proficiency in the non-English language over time, and a third generation that grew up speaking English only, and knew the old language only by studying it.

It’s possible that Spanish in 21st century California may prove to be a little more durable, given the undeniable cultural power of the language and the geographic (and now digital) proximity of the Spanish-speaking world. But it’s far more likely that Spanish will simply become the latest and largest tombstone in the language graveyard that is America.

Census statistics and Pew Research Center analysis tell the tale. While nearly 80 percent of all people who identify as Hispanic (and are age 5 and older) spoke Spanish in the previous decade, that number is expected to fall to about two-thirds by 2020. While 25 percent of Hispanics spoke only English at home in 2010, that figure is estimated to reach 34 percent in 2020. Here in California, the trend is most evident in our schools, where the numbers of English-language learners who speak Spanish has fallen to 1.1 million, from nearly 1.4 million a decade ago.

Spanish’s decline is likely to accelerate even as the percentage of people who trace their heritage to the Spanish-language world accelerates. To a great extent, this reflects the law of the three generations. While 61 percent of first-generation Latino arrivals to this country are Spanish-dominant and 33 percent are bilingual, some 69 percent of third-generation Latinos are English-dominant, and 29 percent are bilingual.

Other trends also will hurt Spanish. Even before the U.S. elected a Mexican-slurring bigot threatening a border wall, immigration to the U.S. from Mexico was at or below net zero, and immigration from Latin America was in deep decline. That’s unlikely to change, given growing middle-class prosperity, lower birth rates and higher education levels across much of Latin America. In this country, the U.S.- born constitute a rapidly increasing percentage of people of Spanish-speaking heritage. Greater integration of families is another factor; more than a quarter of Latino babies have a non-Latino parent.

The Spanish-language media are already grappling with the pressures of this change. Univision helped create Fusion, an English-language network, to woo the rising generations of English-speaking Latinos. (More recently, the network has repositioned itself to focus on millennials of all backgrounds). But there is likely to be considerable carnage among U.S.-based Spanish-language broadcasters and newspapers, which have been losing audiences as more Latino adults consume their news in English. Also troubling for such media: surveys suggest that the percentage of Latino adults who get their news in both languages is also declining.

At root, this is less the story of the decline of Spanish than it is the familiar tale of immigrants and their descendants integrating enthusiastically into American life. Another branch of the story involves the unrivaled and growing power of English as our planet’s dominant tongue. English proficiency is on the rise in every corner of the earth—as the language of global commerce, culture and technology. It’s also a wonderfully democratic language, without the divisive gender or class distinctions of Romance and other languages, without the tricky tones of Asian languages, and without the complex grammatical constructions that make German and Russian such slogs.

Californians should welcome the trend. Our more homegrown, more English-speaking population should be more cohesive, and thus have a greater chance of better governing itself. But English’s rise also poses important questions for California, because of our state’s special interest in the Spanish language. It would be good for the Golden State if we found ways to stop the decline, and preserve Spanish in our state.

The reasons for such preservation go far beyond the desire to honor the heritage of those Californians of Spanish-speaking ancestry. Spanish is at the heart of the history of California. It’s not merely that we were a Spanish colony founded by Spanish missionaries. Our state itself was founded in Spanish, as you’ll see if you look up the records of California’s original 1849 constitutional convention in Monterey and realize that was a bilingual event, with translation by W.E.P. Hartnell. (Fittingly, one of California’s greatest community colleges, a Salinas school that’s good at educating native Spanish speakers, today bears his name). For the first 30 years of our state, the constitution required that all laws be published in Spanish and English. (The San Francisco anti-immigrant forces that wrote the openly racist 1879 constitution changed that).

Preserving Spanish would serve the present and the future as well. There’s big money to be made if we can increase trade with a Spanish-speaking world on the rise. And it would be a huge step-up for our education system to make Spanish a core requirement.  Right now, you can graduate from a California high school without taking even one course in a foreign language. And the UC and Cal State systems require only two years of foreign language for admission. That borders on the criminally negligent, given all we know about the good that learning another language does for our brains.

In November, California voters approved Prop 58, but that modest measure merely removed some bureaucratic barriers to teaching California students in languages other than English. Spanish needs much more, including state requirements and investment so that instruction is available to all. Your columnist is very grateful to have attended Pasadena private schools that made Spanish a full academic subject, with the same number of class hours as math and science and English, from grades six to 12. California would be much better off if that was the standard statewide.

If we preserve Spanish, we’ll have a comparative advantage over the rest of the country, where the language doesn’t have the same history and is more likely to die out. Indeed, if we do this right, Spanish could become a special force in California, distinguishing us and binding us together.

And with that happy thought, I wish you Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.