The Evolving Role of English and Spanish in U.S. Latino Families

While more U.S. Hispanics are speaking English, the ability to speak Spanish is still highly valued.

A recent post from the Pew Research Center Fact Tank provided this key stat: “When asked about their language use and English proficiency in 2014, some 88% of Latinos ages 5 to 17 said they either speak only English at home or speak English ‘very well’.”

That’s an increase of 15% from the year 2000, according to Pew’s analysis of Census Bureau data. The post also notes that:

  • In that same time period, the number of Latinos ages 18-33 who said they speak “only English at home” or “English very well” increased from 59% to 76%
  • 37% of Hispanics ages 5-17 are growing up in households where only English is spoken compared to 30% in 2000

All this is to say that more U.S. Hispanics are speaking English than ever before.

This trend is driven by an increase in U.S.-born Latinos versus Latinos who emigrated here from other countries (a population whose numbers are on the decline). Pew notes in the post that 65% of Latinos in 2014 were U.S. born compared with 60% in 2000.

But don’t think Spanish is going away anytime soon…

Despite the increasing number of U.S. Hispanics who speak English, Spanish is still a strong presence in the lives of this audience. Many individuals who speak English also speak Spanish in some capacity.

According to Pew Research Center:

  • 7 million Latinos speak Spanish at home, making Spanish the most spoken non-English language in the U.S.
  • That’s 73% of all U.S. Latinos

And for older generations, English speaking abilities haven’t changed all that much in the past 14 years. According to Pew:

  • 55% of Latinos ages 34-49 said they spoke English very well or only spoke English at home in 2014 – nearly unchanged from 2000 (53%)
  • 43% of Latinos ages 69+, said they spoke English proficiently in 2014, also similar to the numbers in 2000 (42%)

Most importantly, speaking Spanish is still highly valued by U.S. Hispanics

Pew notes that, 95% of U.S. Latinos say it is important to them that future generations of U.S. Latinos speak the language. That’s a very large number.

This recent article in the L.A. Times also explores the importance of Spanish to U.S. Hispanic families—as well as the challenges of keeping the language alive over generations.

The article provides some specific examples of how U.S. Latinos perceive and value the ability to speak Spanish. One of the most telling quotes in the article comes from Jody Agius Vallejo, an associate professor of sociology at USC, who positions the role of language in this way:

“For many families, language is more than just about speaking. It is about your identity. The relationships that you build and deepen with family and friends or through experiences like travel, and the memories that are derived from those relationships and experiences.”