a {text-decoration: none; } En la punta de la lengua: Spanish as a Heritage Language in the United States

16 dic. 2015

Spanish as a Heritage Language in the United States


            According to Valdés (2000) a Heritage Language is the language someone learns at home as a child, growing up as part of a linguistic minority. However, due to the use of a different dominant language for most speech acts outside the family circle, the speaker becomes more competent in the latter language, and feels more comfortable using it. This is the case for millions of Americans with Hispanic (Spanish) or Latino (Latin American including Portuguese/Brazilian and French/Caribbean) ancestry in the United States.

            By 2010, the Spanish language became the second most natively spoken language in the world with approximately 560 million speakers worldwide, just after Mandarin Chinese, and followed by English. Mexico is still today the country with the highest number of Spanish speakers, although it is expected that by 2050, the United States will take over. 

            Today, Spanish in the United States is the second most spoken language after English, and the primary language spoken at home for some 38 million Americans; that is, almost the 30% of the overall population, without including those individuals from Hispanic ancestry who underwent language attrition (the process of decay that a language experiences for lack of use), do not consider themselves proficient enough, or didn't acquire Spanish at home, due to their parents' need or wish to become quickly assimilated by mainstream American society.

            Based on the aforementioned statistics, Spanish in the United States is a lively language that represents the only “hope” for the United States to be regarded as a bilingual country in a near future. However, there are still several sociolinguistic boulders that need to be removed from the overall population, in order to embrace plurilingualism in a country that has fought so hard to achieve homogeneity and standardization in all senses.   

            One of the major criticisms from Spanish speakers (normally monolingual), who acquired the language in a country where it is not a heritage language, is that the Spanish dialects spoken in the United States are “broken” because of constant code-switching and the lexical borrowing and adaptation of English words, are not used or understood in other varieties. Thus, it I fundamental for us to understand that  Spanglish, Chicano or Border Spanish are unique and incomparable dialects within Spanish speaking world, just as much as the Quechua/Spanish varieties spoken in Paraguay or the Portuñol spoken across the Uruguayan-Brazilian Border.

            We know that the attitudes we have towards a language are closely related to the societies, which speak it, more than the language itself.  So, even if Spanish courses are offered all across the country from elementary school to university level, more often than not, students enroll (or not) in these classes for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they choose not to take them because of: a lack of interest on a language they consider unprestigious or unnecessary, conscious or unconscious denial/shame of their heritage and ancestry, fear that they will not be able to master it, as well as their counterparts from a Spanish speaking country do (in the case of heritage language courses), etc. If they do take them, it is because they think that is going to be an easy course, since they already know how to speak it, but probably ignore the grammatical conventions, writing style, orthography, etc. which may lead to demotivation. 
            Our labor as either educators, linguists or civilians interested on maintaining and improving the vitality of the Spanish language in the United States, is to start eradicating all those false assumptions of Spanish as a second-hand language, and promoting the formal study of the language, not to learn a “better” variety of it, but to be able to accommodate our register to a standard one, whenever we find ourselves in a situation that requires our written or spoken interaction with Spanish speakers who do not share our same cultural and linguistic background.

Valdés, G. 2000. The teaching of heritage languages: an introduction for Slavic-teaching professionals. The learning and teaching of Slavic languages and cultures, Olga Kagan and Benjamin Rifkin (eds.), 375–403.

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