May 4, 2010 Number Speaking Spanish Increases

Number speaking Spanish increases
Rise in SB County reflects that in nation

By Stephen Wall
The Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), May 4, 2010

Jenifer Velazco straddles a bilingual world.

The 24-year-old Rialto resident was born in the United States but spent her early childhood in Mexico. She grew up speaking Spanish at home.

When she returned to the United States a decade ago, she struggled in high school because she didn't know much English.

'People at school used to make fun of me and call me names because I had an accent,' Velazco said.

But Velazco was persistent, graduating from high school and going on to earn two college degrees in international business and human resources.

Although she's fluent in English now, she still feels more comfortable speaking Spanish.

'I feel more confident speaking Spanish because that was my first language,' Velazco said.

Velazco is not alone in her preference for Spanish.

According to newly released Census data, the number of Americans age 5 and older who spoke a language other than English at home has more than doubled in the past three decades.

Spanish speakers accounted for the largest increase. Nationwide, there were 23.4million more Spanish speakers in 2007 than in 1980, representing a 211percent increase.

The increase in San Bernardino County also has been significant.

In 1980, less than 17percent of county residents age 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home. Today, about 40percent of residents in that age group speak a language other than English at home.

One-third of county residents age 5 and older say they speak Spanish at home. Nearly half of those Spanish-speaking residents indicate they speak English less than very well, according to Census data.

'It's a clear indication of the demographic revolution that's facing the country and the region,' said Louie Rodriguez, assistant professor of educational leadership and curriculum at Cal State San Bernardino. 'With a more diverse society, we're going to have linguistic diversity as well.'

The growing diversity has profound implications for the nation, Census officials say.

'The language data that the Census Bureau collects is vital to local agencies in determining potential language needs of school-aged children, for providing voting materials in non-English languages as mandated by the Voting Rights Act, and for researchers to analyze language trends in the U.S.,' Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a statement.

Critics are troubled by the linguistic trends.

'There's no question there's been a huge increase in non-English speaking residents in the United States,' said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of Pro English, a Virginia-based organization that advocates making English the official language of government operations in the United States.

'It's one of the reasons it's more important than ever that we take steps to protect our nation's historic unity in the English language,' McAlpin said.

While his group recognizes the advantages of speaking a second or third language, McAlpin said the first concern should be for people to learn English and assimilate into American society.

'Employers aren't interested in hiring non-English speaking employees except in low-level jobs,' he said. 'It strengthens the country and helps immigrants when they acquire English.'

Myriam Casimir, assistant professor of education at Cal Poly Pomona, said a globalizing world requires a work force that can read, write and speak more than one language.

'Instead of being seen as a challenge or handicap, it should be seen as an asset to nurture,' Casimir said. 'Rather than replacing the home language with English, we should think about how we add on English to their existing language.'

Latino activist Gil Navarro said there is a big need for more English-as-a-Second-Language classes for immigrant adults.

'In this country, if you don't speak English, you need to learn English,' said Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County board of education. 'These individuals are hesitant to report crimes. They're hesitant to seek resources either for family use or for their student's education because of their lack of the English language. That is an area we need to start addressing more aggressively.'

Rodriguez said he finds it 'very disturbing' that some people want to restrict bilingual education.

'As we become a global market, we need people in our country to be able to communicate in Chinese or Arabic or Spanish,' Rodriguez said. 'If we limit ourselves to just English, we limit our competitiveness as a country.'

Velazco, the Rialto resident who graduated from Cal State San Bernardino last year with two degrees, has struggled to find a job despite her bilingual skills.

She held a temporary position as a clerical assistant for a local water district but lost that job seven months ago. She hopes her luck changes when the economy rebounds.

'I feel normal speaking both languages or going back and forth with people who understand both English and Spanish,' Velazco said. 'I don't think it's a bad idea to be bilingual or know both languages. I think it's a huge advantage in life and opens more doors in regards to getting a better job.'

EDITORS NOTE: The corresponding Census Bureau release and report are available online at: