Bilingualism, Cultural Transmutation, and Fields of Coexistence: California's Spanish Language Legacy

Article excerpt

Abstract

This is an historical analysis of English Only programs in California and their impact on bilingualism as a natural acquisition process. Factors that propagate bilingualism such as a continual flow of Spanish speaking immigrants, and social, economic and ethnic isolation, are delineated for theorizing about key aspects of multilingualism, the persistence of Spanish/English bilingualism and cultural nuances of language behaviors as a foundation for cross-cultural understanding. Since the turn of the 20th century there has been a strong shift from Spanish as the official language of law and policy to English in the State of California. The most widely used language other than English has been Spanish. At the beginning of the 21st century it has been projected that Spanish speaking Latinos in the State of California will constitute 43% of the States' population by 2020 (1). This analysis will posit a reconceptualzing of bilingualism for the States' Spanish language speakers and a redefinition of a multinational and global cultural identity that transcends boundaries of nationalistic constructs imposed historically.

Introduction

This paper posits bilingualism as a natural acquisition process. Historically in California as well as in other parts of the U.S. the intervention of schooling, except in very few exemplary cases, has stifled the development and the use of two languages. In the case of Spanish, it is primarily due to the historical antecedents of relegating the language and culture to second-class citizen status in the schooling process. In California, there has been a public amnesia concerning the cultural and historical foundations of the Spanish-speaking Mexican population. The focus of this paper is on theoretical views of language and culture within a Spanish-speaking context in California that have not been dealt with sufficiently. Schooling as an institution has not provided adequate education and has served only to marginalize Spanish speakers. Present day advocates of English Only language policies only consider the Mexican population as a recent immigrant and do not take into account the historical psychological foundations of the community or the intimate linkage of language and culture. The co-existence of a growing Spanish speaking population with historical change has impacted bilingualism. There is ample evidence that schooling for Mexican American children throughout the Southwest has been neglected and inferior but especially that the restrictive use of the native language has existed for more than a hundred years. (Attinasi 1997; Gonzales 1997; Macedo 1997; Menchaca, 1995; Ruiz, 1997; San Miguel 1987).

The tenets of my argument in this paper are that Spanish/English bilingualism persists and grows in spite of the lack of institutional support from schools and the deliberate attempt politically to set up Americanization and English Only policies. Bilingualism as a multifaceted process does not just include speaking two languages whether in a balanced way or in a fragmented manner (i.e., code switching between English and Spanish, inappropriate grammatical combinations, etc.), it may also include different degrees of comprehension and symbolic understanding in two languages. From this perspective bilingualism is also the ability to understand semiotic aspects of culture connected to language, nuances of social interactions that are cultural in nature and the appreciation of icons, symbols and practices associated with everyday life. Before expanding on this aspect, lets briefly consider an important dimension of California's Spanish language legacy.

California's Spanish Language Legacy: A History of Marginalization

In California, for approximately one hundred and fifty years, generations of Spanish surname people use English and Spanish in everyday interactions. In the Southwest, where former Mexican regions became part of the United States, use of the English language was enforced (Dickers, 1996:144). …