The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Language in America

By Chris Hoenig

Photo by Shutterstock

Spanish is being spoken more than ever in the United States, and the number of Spanish-speaking Americans is only expected to grow. But the percentage of Latinos who speak Spanish at home is shrinking.

Research from the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project found that the population of Spanish-speaking Americans has more than tripled since 198037 million Spanish-speaking Americans make that language the most spoken non-English language in the country. (Only the number of Vietnamese speakers has grown at a faster pace in the U.S. over the past three decades.)

That trend continues in projections, with the number of Spanish speakers expected to reach as high as 43 million by 2020. A 2011 projection from U.S. Census Bureau researchers predicts that the vast majorityupward of 41 million out of the 43 millionwill be Latinos.

Speaking Less Spanish at Home

While the growth in the actual number of Spanish speakers aligns with the increase in the size of the Latino population, further research shows a drasticbut not entirely unexpectedchange in the way Latinos raise their families.

Between 1980 and 2000, a time when immigration was the primary factor in the increase of the Latino population in the U.S., Spanish was a staple in the Latino household. Each year, the gap between Spanish-speaking and English-only households increased, peaking at about 78 percent of Latino families’ speaking Spanish at home. Now, that gap is shrinking significantly: By 2020, more than one-third of Latino families are expected to make English the sole language in their household.

The reason for this seemingly contradictory fact The source of population growth. A 2011 Pew analysis of Census data on Mexican-Americans found that U.S. births had surpassed immigration as the leading source of population growth. These second-generation children have greater exposure to English in the media and entertainment, as well as in social situations.

Following the Path of Other Languages

History suggests that the decrease in the shareof Latino households that speak Spanish is to be expected. In the past, as immigration from a particular country decreased, so did the share of households that speak that country’s native language. For example, German- and Polish-speaking Americans have dropped by as much as 55 percent since 1980, despite an increase in the number of people who can trace their heritage to the region.

Latino families do hope to be different, though. A 2012 Pew report found that an overwhelming number of Latinos believe that future generations should be, at the very least, bilingual. Despite the prevalence of English in media, entertainment and everyday life, 95 percent of Latinos, whether they were born in the U.S. or immigrated, believe Latino children should speak Spanish.

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