Losing the Mother Tongue

“You don’t speak Spanish?! But you’re Mexican!”

Too often, many second-generation Latinos are confronted with this question, to which they reply, “Yeah, I know…”

They think, “How could I forget? What happened?” But the reality is that many of them don’t know why they don’t speak it.

Spanish language loss among second-generation Latinos, those with immigrant parents, has been widely studied. Research and Statistics show that “98 percent of second-generation respondents [reported] fluency in English and 88 percent [indicated] a preference for English over their mother tongue.”

What leads to this preference?

“I was born and raised here, so to me [Spanish] was more of a second language. The more English I learned, the less Spanish I spoke. Today, I feel, it’s more common to find Latinos in similar situations,” said Andres Berumen, a senior at Eisenhower High School born to Mexican parents.

His answer is not far from what most would guess is the reason for the lack of Spanish retention in the US: we assimilate to the English language because it is all around us. The environment that surrounds us dictates the language we speak, right? Yes.

The US has been referred to as a graveyard for foreign languages. The process of losing the mother tongue was found to be most rapid here in the US when compared to that loss in other countries. Interestingly enough, this loss was less rapid among Spanish-speaking Latinos.

Among Latino groups, there is also some disparity. Mexican-Americans were found to retain their mother language the best, but were reciprocally the worst at English proficiency over time when compared to Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Central and South Americans.

So what factors lead us to lose the language of our culture?

“If I would have balanced them out somehow instead of choosing one [English] over the other [Spanish], that would have made a difference,” Berumen reflects. However, research has proven otherwise.

Maintaining Spanish proficiency is most directly correlated with the language that is modeled by the parents in the household, not one’s own individual preference or what they feel about the language. The home environment and the language used by parents and close relatives have been found to have the greatest effect on this retention.

According to a report out of Harvard University by Van C. Tran, Spanish is spoken at home with parents more so than others in and outside of home. Second-generation Latinos lose the language because of a lack of practice outside the home.

It had also been found that in communities where there is a majority of Spanish-only speaking people push the second generation to use the language, which allows for retention rate.

The same Harvard report stated that “first-generation immigrants learned some English but preferred the use of their mother tongue; the second generation developed a preference for English but continued to use the minority language at home; and the third generation spoke only English,” showcasing the eventual loss of the Spanish language in later generations of Latinos in the US.

If it weren’t for the continuing influx of immigrant peoples across US borders that replenish the Spanish speaking environments for later generations of Latinos, this mother tongue would dissipate that much quicker.

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