Is Spanish in the U.S. the language of functional illiterates?


Teachers, counselors and people who deal with Latino families are wondering why so many Latino children prefer to speak English, despite the fact that their immigrant parents speak to them in Spanish. They urge parents to insist on bilingualism in hopes that the children will not lose their language. Nevertheless, second-generation children speak Spanish less and less, and the third generation no longer speaks it.

According to the Pew Research Center, Spanish-speaking Latino households have decreased from 80 percent in 2008 to 66 percent today, while Latino households that speak English have increased from 20 percent to 34 percent in the same period. Spanish is still the second-most spoken language in the United States, however. The influence of Latinos—half from Mexico and half from other Hispanic countries—is vital for the country. Spanish-language radio and television stations have grown exponentially in 25 years, often beating in ratings their English-speaking counterparts.

The opposite is true when it comes to the written word and print media. Of the more than 100 Spanish-language newspapers registered in California, most are monthly and short-lived. They contain mostly ads, little news from other papers, and lamentable grammar. Only a handful are professionally done. A review of the collection of Spanish literature in most libraries and the books requested by possible readers reflects little interest in written material. Demand for books in Spanish in bookstores is minimal. Signs and announcements in Spanish are mostly defective translations from English, usually rife with errors.

In general, the Spanish spoken and written in the United States does not compete in quality with that in Spanish-speaking countries where all the social strata speak it and many can read and write. That is not the case in this country. Although it is assumed that Latino immigrants write well and read as much as anyone, only a minority actually does so; still, experts recommend that Latino parents read and speak to their children in Spanish so they will become functionally bilingual. Yet this is not realistic, considering the parents’ low educational levels and poor vocabulary. Our schools essentially educate in English and there are few effective bilingual programs.

Many bilingual schools do their best, but limited human and material resources mean they cannot fully carry out their work. Their programs and writings originate in English and most of the teachers are native English speakers who probably learned Spanish in high-school or college. Some others grew up speaking Spanish but didn’t formally study it until later. Thus their Spanish is generally limited and imperfect, with very literal, inaccurate translations full of syntactical and grammatical errors. So English prevails over Spanish, which, with its questionable quality, tends to fade away.

Translations abound for telephone companies, banks and businesses whose clients speak Spanish, and cable, internet and electricity providers. Translations in hospitals, clinics and government agencies are in most circumstances of questionable quality. Some have improved over the years, but even these are still full of errors, from mild to severe.

We must ask ourselves why, with so many errors, there are almost no complaints from the Spanish speakers to whom these translations and writings are addressed. The explanation seems to be that most of these readers have a low educational level and cannot read at all, or read infrequently with limited vocabularies and skills. Therefore they cannot judge the quality of the writing, and in fact perceive it to be so sophisticated as to be unintelligible. They are functional illiterates.

I have interpreted and translated for immigration services, schools, clinics, courts, private and governmental agencies and in many other situations. In each case, almost all Latinos cannot understand what I have translated, not only because their English is limited but because their Spanish is too. The translation exceeds their ability to understand it. They understand the simple and obvious, but the formal vocabulary of the educational, legal, medical, banking, electoral and other systems is difficult or impossible for them to understand. Beyond the translation, one would have to explain to them even the most basic things. Often they just nod their heads and shrug their shoulders in resignation.

Thus vanishes the myth of the 1990s, when it was believed that with the large increase in Latino immigrants, the use of the Spanish language in California would match and eventually surpass English by 2020. When I asked my Anglo students why they wanted to study Spanish, this was the most recurrent reason. 

Yet it has not turned out that way. English is the language that dominates formal and informal speech in all social, economic and political strata in California and the rest of the country. Spanish will remain secondary, colloquial and limited, corrupted by Anglicism and equivocations in words and expressions with syntactic errors, becoming decadent and rejected by even its younger speakers who prefer the dominant and more developed English.  


Victor Reyes lives in Cotati.