Shift in the heart of Texas : a quantitative and qualitative investigation of intergenerational language shift from Spanish to English in Austin, Texas




Lawrence, Patrick Eklund

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The current U.S. sociopolitical climate of the U.S. has caused many Hispanophone families to stop transmitting Spanish to the next generation as they assimilate to the dominant Anglo-American culture, a sociolinguistic process known as language shift. Numerous studies have concluded that after the initial generation of immigrants, proficiency in Spanish diminishes with each subsequent generation until complete language shift is realized, often by the third generation (Veltman 1988; Bills, Hernández-Chávez, and Hudson, 1995; Rivera-Mills 2000; Bills 2005; MacGregor-Mendoza 2005; Wolford and Carter 2010, 2018). The current study provides a more comprehensive overview of intergenerational language shift from Spanish to English than previous studies-by examining the problem through both quantitative and qualitative measures in Austin, Texas, an understudied speech community for this topic. Quantitative measures consisted of a) an online questionnaire examining proficiency and language usage patterns in Spanish and English; and b) semi-structured sociolinguistic interviews to investigate a series of grammatical and lexical variables. Applying Ethnolinguistic Vitality Theory (Giles, Bourhis, and Taylor 1977) and Fishman’s Language Reversal Theory (Fishman 1991, 2001), I also qualitatively examined interview transcriptions for personal accounts of language shift to humanize the data.

Quantitative analysis revealed that generations farther removed from immigration showed statistically significant lower rates of Spanish usage and proficiency, higher rates of English usage and proficiency, as well as higher rates of grammatical substitution in gender concord, aspect, and mood, loanshifts, and lexical creations. There were very few statistically significant differences between consecutive generations, which challenges previous three-generation language shift models that claim language shift to be a predictable and deterministic process.

Qualitative analysis revealed language shift to be a highly painful process replete with identity issues, linguistic insecurity, and isolation from more proficient Spanish-speaking family members. Likewise, exogamous marriages, assimilatory pressure starting in school, gentrification, internalized racism, machista norms in household language decisions, and fear of deportation all contribute to language shift by discouraging speakers to use Spanish and teach it to their children, thereby negatively impacting both the subjective and objective ethnolinguistic vitality of Spanish in Austin (Giles et al. 1977; Gao, Schmidt, and Gudykunst 1994; Yagmur and Ehala 2011).


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