Ana Veciana-Suarez

Language barriers in America are not as common as you think

“Spanish, Mom. Speak to them in Spanish.”

My oldest son gives these instructions as he drops off his three daughters, oblivious to the irony that he is delivering the plea in another language.

I agree to the request, of course. I always do, but I regard this linguistic challenge as a losing proposition. These three blonde, blue-eyed girls — their mother, who bequeathed them their coloring, calls them, “The Blonde Suarezes” — are exposed to foreign sounds only in my house, and their Spanish vocabulary is rudimentary, selectively acquired in school and with their abuela.

Truly, I blame myself for this. I think it important our children learn a second language, as much for cultural reasons as business ones, and doing so is an issue close to my heart. In three generations, my family has gone from my grandparents’ Catalan, to my parents’ Spanish, to my generation’s English, with bilingualism lasting but a few decades. I didn’t want that trend to continue, yet I’ve not done well enough to change it. Of my six granddaughters, only two are bilingual, the result of a concerted effort by their parents to make their household a Spanish-only zone. But even that rule is nearly impossible to execute, since the parents tend to speak English between themselves.

I hardly think my family is unusual. A Pew Research study released in 2015 found that English proficiency is on the rise among Latinos, while a declining share of them are speaking Spanish at home. This shift, the report authors add, coincides with a notable demographic change: U.S-born Hispanics, like my children, increasingly make up a larger part of the nation’s Hispanic population at a time when immigration from Latin America has slowed.

I remembered that report and my son’s request when I read President Trump’s latest effort to reform immigration. Last week, he endorsed the RAISE act, which would dramatically limit legal immigration and shift it from a system based on family ties to one based on high-level skills, education and English fluency. Reaction — condemnation and applause — has been swift, which doesn’t surprise me, as immigration is a hot topic.

I’ll add my two cents: Under the proposal, I might not have been writing this column, my parents likely excluded by the language requirement. So, yes, it’s personal for me. (Trump’s grandfather, by the way, wouldn’t have passed muster, either.)

Over the years, I’ve had many readers ask me to write about language, a topic that is fraught with conflict and complications. Much of my extended family is monolingual, so every once in a while I get an earful: “Why can’t they learn English?” They, of course, meaning immigrants. And so over the years, I’ve repeated and reiterated: Immigrants do learn English. Studies have shown that minority languages are lost by the third generation, a fact as true in the 1880s as it is in 2017. Look up the research.

This doesn’t mean that the foreign-born and their bridge children (yours truly) will stop using their native tongue once here. I certainly don’t intend to.

But, of course, this isn’t just about language. Sometimes it’s about feeling like a stranger in your own country. I, for one, think it unforgivable to address a customer in a language other than English unless that customer so requests it. I also think it rude for workers to speak a language in a work setting when others don’t understand it. In Miami, as in other cities, both situations are common.

The immigration debate is also about a lot more, about unwanted demographic change and at times, though not always, about prejudice. But if racists think immigration provisions will stop the inevitable, here’s the newsflash: It won’t. The face of America is changing because of birth rates, and my grandchildren’s peers will be diverse in ways I can’t even imagine. That train, as they say, has left the station. Or in other words, Ese tren ya se fue. 

(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)

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