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When the Answer to ¿Hablas español? is Complicated

By Whitney Chappell and Stephanie Schoellman

Understanding and Combating Language Loss in U.S. Latin@s

We use language to write poetry that elevates the human experience, to convey complicated theories and ideas, and more generally, to help us make sense of the world within our own culture.

For instance, English speakers classify both light blue and dark blue as shades of the same color, while Russian speakers, who have two separate words to describe the hues, label them as different colors. Language also connects us to a group’s shared customs and history, allowing us to position ourselves both as individuals and members of a group. Our identities are often intimately connected to the way we speak, which is why, as Whitney Chappell points out, the loss of the Spanish language is so keenly felt at a personal and cultural level among U.S. Latin@s.

Chappell is an assistant professor of Hispanic linguistics at UTSA, specializing in monolingual and bilingual dialects of Spanish. Her research focuses on how different linguistic variants are used to negotiate identity within a broader social setting, contributing to our understanding of how language use intersects with and informs our social behavior and attitudes. San Antonio provides a unique locus of study for sociolinguists like Chappell who are interested in bilingual communities; approximately 40% of San Antonio residents speak Spanish compared to only 11% nationwide. In spite of the high rates of Spanish use and bilingualism in San Antonio, a monolingual bias in the U.S. drives an ongoing shift towards English. “You can actually see this shift take place within a single family,” says Chappell. “It is not uncommon in San Antonio to hear grandparents speaking Spanish to their grandchildren with the grandchildren responding in English.” Typically, within two to three generations, the Spanish language is lost or is only used emblematically in fixed phrases, replaced in most contexts by English.

Societal pressures play a central role in language shift; parents may fear discrimination against their children for speaking a language other than English, or worry, based on incorrect but popular assumptions, that hearing two languages at an early age will “confuse” a child. “Few linguistic myths are more damaging than this one,” Chappell says. “Bilingual children are not confused by the input they receive in two languages. They easily sort out the languages’ grammars within the normal developmental age range, and the emotional, social, and cognitive advantages of bilingualism far outweigh any perceived disadvantages.” The impressive body of literature on the “bilingual advantage” points to better academic performance, greater problem solving skills and mental flexibility, and a delay in the onset of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention the economic benefits associated with speaking two languages in an increasingly globalized world.

Despite these research-backed benefits of speaking more than one language, the Western monolingual bias persists, perpetuating a shift away from Spanish. In fact, Spanish-speaking children in the U.S. are dealt a double blow that can accelerate language loss. First, they feel pressure to speak English publicly, and second, when they do speak Spanish, they may be subjected to criticism for speaking the “wrong” variety of Spanish, a variety that is “too corrupted” by English. Nearly half of UTSA students are Latin@, but many lack confidence in their Spanish. “Every semester, I have Spanish-speaking students tell me that they don’t speak Spanish,” Chappell says. Instead, many students claim to speak “Spanglish,” “Tex-Mex,” or “un español pocho,” convinced that their way of speaking Spanish is impure and therefore illegitimate.

It is not uncommon in San Antonio to hear grandparents speaking Spanish to their grandchildren with the grandchildren responding in English.

This idea of a “pure” language is one of the prominent myths that Chappell seeks to dispel in her class on Bilingualism in the Spanish-speaking World. All languages are mutts to some degree. English, for example, is a hybrid of Germanic roots and Latinate vocabulary, its purity a myth believed only by those without access to etymological dictionaries. Words like flexible, grammar, and composer, once bemoaned by English language purists as Romance corruptions of a pure Germanic tongue, are now categorically employed, their English equivalents bendsome, speechcraft, and tonesmith long since abandoned. Spanish is just as rich and varied as English, having transmuted with time, space, and contact with other cultures. No one laments the use of contact-driven Romance loan words in English, so why should English loan words like troca ‘truck’, lonche ‘lunch’, or wachar ‘to watch’ provoke such ire among Spanish speakers?According to Chappell, “Value judgments about language are the last bastion of socially acceptable discrimination, as a person’s way of speaking indexes her place of origin, race, class, heritage and myriad other social factors.” The grammar police attack anyone who uses ain’t or creates a sign that reads Puche la palanca ‘push the lever’, armed with preconceptions that link language with intelligence, group membership, and even moral character. In other words, linguistic complaints can perpetuate the social hierarchy that places an educated elite above the masses, and can serve as veiled criticism of the social characteristics reflected by a certain way of speaking. Chappell notes that such critiques are particularly potent on college campuses, especially when they come from instructors. “The deficit perspective that is often applied to more socially stigmatized varieties, especially the Spanish spoken in San Antonio, is dangerous,” Chappell argues. “If professors tell their students that the way they speak, the way their family and friends speak is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, those educators are ultimately driving their students away from Spanish classes and, more generally, away from higher education.”

Rather than alienating UTSA students, several new classes in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures seek to celebrate the knowledge of Spanish that students already have and to empower them. At the upper division level, Chappell’s bilingualism class helps students understand linguistic ideologies, language loss, and the legitimacy of “Spanglish” in both cultural and linguistic terms. At the lower division level, heritage speaker (HS) classes provide a space tailored for English-dominant Latin@ UTSA students. Lilian L. Cano, a lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, taught one of the new HS classes this spring. She describes the course as “a new Spanish class specifically for heritage speakers – people who grew up speaking Spanish but have limited writing, listening, and speaking skills.” The class provides “an opportunity for heritage speakers to come together and connect with their community, become more confident, and improve job opportunities through a better understanding of Spanish,” she says. Chappell says convincing heritage speakers that the Spanish they already know is valuable is an important first step. “We hope to show our heritage speakers that they don’t need to learn another language. They simply need to learn another register, a more formal variety of Spanish,” Chappell explains, “but it is also important to preserve the variety of Spanish we speak with our friends and family.” The Department of Modern Languages and Literatures intends to expand its courses for heritage speakers and also upperlevel linguistics offerings, which will help students gain confidence, value their heritage, and learn how to dress their language up in the appropriate contexts.

When asked how to prevent Spanish language loss in San Antonio, Chappell answers, “Speak Spanish as much as you can and value whatever form, whatever level of Spanish you know. And if you are a heritage speaker, sign up for our courses and improve on the advantage that you already possess.”