“At some point, he would say, ‘Mom, I’d rather you speak English, please,’” Glenda Harvey recalled. “At which point I started crying and thinking that was the worst thing ever.”
Now Sebastian, 9, is enrolled in the Spanish-English program at the Washington International School. He’s still comfortable in both languages and reads Cervantes with his mother in Spanish. So far, so good.
A Latino presence
Washington feels more Latinized every day. The region’s Latino population rose 73 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 408,885 to 709,193. Hispanics are 15 percent of the population. There are bilingual signs in stores, Spanish advisories in Metro stations and airports, bilingual ATMs and bank tellers.
Spanish seems so very alive because it is fresh on the lips of so many new arrivals. Yet, simultaneously, the language is dying daily. Research shows that most grandchildren of Latino immigrants will sound like gringos.
Despite parents’ and grandparents’ best efforts, “Spanish appears to draw its last breath in the third generation,” said Ruben Rumbaut, professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, a leading expert in the survival rates of immigrant languages. He calls the United States “the world’s largest language graveyard” because of the cultural power of American English.
To beat the odds, a subset of high-achieving Latino parents in the Washington area is adding an especially heartfelt obligation to the suburban scramble for programmed activity: from ballet to soccer to piano — to various Spanish-language programs around the Beltway.
“It is very difficult to accomplish,” said Harvey, who, as a Puerto Rican, is not an immigrant but whose first language was Spanish. “I want them to really know who they are,” she said of her three children. “You do not understand the nuances of a culture until you can truly hear it and feel it the way you do through language.”
This region is home to the most affluent and one of the most highly educated Latino communities in the country. These established and worldly parents are perfectly bilingual themselves, at ease in two worlds. Keenly aware of the prospect of language death, they seek strategies to bequeath their own cultural agility to their children.