Spanish on the deathbed

English only: Not just wrong but stupid

Published September 14, 2006 4:07PM (EDT)

You don't see professor Samuel "clash of civilizations" Huntington taken out to the woodshed very often. But a new paper in the September issue of Population and Development Review that explores "linguistic life expectancy" in the United States delivers a smack-down that can't be ignored.

Huntington, as authors Ruben G. Rumbaut, Douglas S. Massey and Frank D. Bean note at the outset, contributed a pernicious academic gloss to the immigration debate in 2004 in his book "Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity." He argued that the surge in Latin American immigration threatened the cultural identity of the United States. Of particular concern were all those Mexican immigrants who were intent on continuing to speak Spanish long after their arrival in the United States. Unlike the good old European immigrants of old, Huntington suggested, the Mexicans would not assimilate.

One problem: According to Rumbaut et al., Huntington's thesis on the survival powers of the Spanish language is flat-out wrong. The authors found, after extensive surveys of immigrants and their descendants in Southern California, that by the third generation (defined as having both parents born in the United States) Spanish is rarely spoken, even in the home. The U.S., say the authors, maintains its glorious reputation as "the graveyard of languages."

The obvious rejoinder would be: Well, maybe that's been true in the past, but how can that possibly hold for the future, given the huge numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants that, legally and illegally, continue to pour over the border? The authors address this forthrightly:

"This analysis carries the same caveat as any other study based on a period life table estimated from cross-sectional data: it assumes that the linguistic behavior of today's second, third, and fourth generation immigrants accurately forecasts the behavior of future generations. It is possible that Spanish will be retained more readily in the future because its use is no longer stigmatized in schools; because continuous immigration will create more opportunities to speak Spanish with one's compatriots in the future; or because Spanish-language media will become increasingly prevalent. At this point, however, after at least 50 years of continuous Mexican immigration into Southern California, Spanish appears to draw its last breath in the third generation."

But my favorite part of the paper, which surprisingly got zero coverage in the news accounts that I've seen, was the authors' last-minute twist on the English-only debate. Rather than comfort their readers with the knowledge that American cultural identity will resist the ravages of the southern invaders, they note that "language death" isn't necessarily a good thing.

"To the extent that language fluency is an asset and that knowledge of a foreign tongue represents a valuable resource in a global economy, immigrants' efforts to maintain this part of their cultural heritage and pass it on to their children should not be discouraged."

In other words, we need more language diversity in the U.S., not less.

To which I would add, what are so we afraid of, anyway? I'm sure there were citizens in the Roman Empire who bewailed the loss of cultural identity that was sure to follow when the Goths and Vandals and Huns swept down from the north. And they were right -- in the short term. But in the long term, that immigration resulted in new and vibrantly distinct cultures and languages that are cherished -- and defended with zeal -- today. But where is it written that the borders of national identity should be frozen for all time as they are engraved upon the globe at this particular juncture in history? What possibilities for future synthesis and cultural creativity do we close off with our feeble, shortsighted efforts to defend our essence, whether that be French, or Japanese, or Chinese -- or that most profoundly polyglot of all identities -- American?

Bring on the Huns, I say! We need more spice.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration Latin America Mexico