Why 2nd Generation Hispanics Don’t Speak Their First Language


Full disclosure: I don’t speak Spanish. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, I understand the language to an absolute degree of confidence, but rarely try to speak Spanish aloud.

I know I won’t be successful in a way comparable to my English, and that keeps me from even trying – or it’s my rationalization.

My father, who came to the United States from Mexico at age eight, was punished for speaking Spanish at the Catholic school he attended in his new country.

I heard these painful anecdotes in English, in a house where I also learned my American accent while watching reruns of “Three’s Company” and “Rockford Files”.

In 2016, Senator Ted Cruz explained his discomfort with Spanish to a Univision reporter after being asked if he could answer questions in Spanish: “I understand almost everything in Spanish, but I can’t not speak as well as I would like. “

Returning to English, Cruz said, “I have the second generation immigrant problem.” He added: “To be honest, what I really spoke at home was Spanish.”

The reasons for this second generation immigrant’s unease in Spanish are complex, but the source of this complication seems to be related to an immigrant’s sense of survival.

Virginia Talley, who runs The Language House in Hyde Park, has very personal reasons for trying to introduce her students to the fullness of the Spanish language. The Language House offers private and group Spanish conversation classes and, on pre-COVID days, even offered immersion trips to Oaxaca, Mexico, for those who wanted to explore the land as well as the language.

The students of The Languge House go on a hike in Argentina as part of an immersion trip offered by the school. (The House of Language)

Talley’s father, a family doctor in Bastrop, had a lab technician who was from Mexico but who never spoke his mother tongue. According to Talley, the man considered the Spanish taboo and did not speak it to his children because of the language implications seen locally by the lower classes.

“It was this horribly tragic thing when I look back on it,” Talley said. “Where I was growing up, a lot of my friends were Hispanic… but they didn’t speak it at all because, again, I think it was really looked down upon; parents weren’t even trying to teach their kids . “

Today, Talley often sees second-generation Latino immigrants coming to his classes because of something akin to guilt, or even a sense of responsibility for a lost heritage. “People feel like they’re embarrassed because they think they should be able to speak Spanish; you know, maybe it wasn’t spoken at home, or they rejected it or they didn’t learn it properly. “

The stigma of speaking Spanish is rising, according to Talley; and now even those who speak Spanish fluently seem compelled to learn it better.

While teaching Spanish 101 at Austin Community College, Talley says she was flabbergasted when she saw that everyone in her class was Latino. “I was like, ‘What’s going on here? “They were all heritage speakers and so their Spanish was wonderful (but) they couldn’t write, so it was like an interesting dynamic, teaching heritage speakers fundamentally how to write correctly.”

Marisol Cortez, an award-winning author who will be one of the few in-person authors featured at Austin’s upcoming Texas Book Festival, is well aware of the cultural complexities of this language issue and is doing something about it.

Marisol Cortez feels internal pressure when speaking Spanish because she is not fluent in it. (Marisol Cortez)

A mother of 13 and a toddler, Cortez insisted that her children speak English and Spanish.

It was something that she herself didn’t have the opportunity to experience growing up, and it was an early barrier to her environmental activism that she had to correct.

Although he has a Mexican-American father, Cortez never heard Spanish at home. Growing up with a more natural fluency in English than Spanish in San Antonio was a bit of a double-edged sword for the writer.

Cortez remembers how his father’s own brand of Tex-Mex Spanish was mocked when he visited relatives in Mexico; thus, language was oddly a problem on both sides of the border.

“My dad never spoke it at home,” she says. “So I grew up absorbing it in a way, but not speaking it at home, and then everything I’m able to say in Spanish now has pretty much been acquired as an adult.”

The insecurity about her Spanish remains a slight blockage for her even today. She says when she says it, she’s nervous and feels an internal pressure to speak more fluently than she is. But it is important for her that he stays alive with his family.

“The importance of Spanish for future generations lies in its ability to keep us linked to the struggles of our parents and grandparents,” Cortez said. “It is a way of recognizing that we stand on the shoulders of these struggles. Even though we recognize the reality that Spanish is a colonial language imposed on the peoples of this continent, it is also a way of keeping ourselves connected to our neighbors, responsible for their struggles, it is an important form of solidarity.

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