Spanish is on the rise. The numbers might surprise you. Spanish is No. 3 among the more than 5,000 languages spoken in the world today. Only the languages of China and India are spoken by more native speakers. Even English take a back seat to Spanish with 330 million native speakers in the world, compared to 346 million for Spanish.

In the United States, college students are flocking to learn the language. Major U.S. book companies are publishing Spanish-language editions, available at your local Borders bookstore. Corporate America is increasingly selling itself through Spanish-language ads, and following the lead of CNN en Español, new arrival CBS Telenoticias is competing head-to-head with Univisión and Telemundo for U.S. and Latin American Spanish-speaking audiences. And immigration continues to swell the ranks of Spanish speakers in this country. There were more than 17 million of them by 1990, more than the combined total of speakers of all other non-languages.

Despite the boom in Spanish, no one questions the continuing dominance of English in the United States and internationally. English is the lingua franca in the world today. Its status is ensured by its use in cutting-edge areas such as science, aviation, and computers. Checking out the Internet's World Wide Web? About 83 percent of home pages are in English. No language in human history has ever had the global standing English currently enjoys.

A Question of Long-term Health
What is in question is the future of Spanish in this country. Beneath the upbeat statistics, there are serious concerns about its long-term health. Studies show that the failure of many second- and third-generation Latinos to retain the language is depleting the pool of Spanish speakers. Yet that same pool is continually replenished by immigration. What will be the ultimate outcome of these seemingly contradictory trends?

The fate of immigrant languages has been to flower, then fade. Will that be the story of Spanish in the next century? Many experts believe it already is happening. They say immigration merely prolongs the inevitable. Since large-scale Latin American immigration will not continue forever, they contend, Spanish in the United States will eventually decline. Only major changes in language attitudes and policies will prevent this. They point out that a script similar to that followed by previous immigrants is being played out as U.S.-born Hispanics, for whom English is almost always the language of choice, seldom pass on Spanish to their offspring.

Recent studies by sociologists Alejandro Portes in Miami, and Rubén Rumbaut in San Diego, point to a rapid shift to English among the children of immigrants.

"All research during the last 30 years...points toward the irrevocable intergenerational loss of Spanish here," wrote Daniel Villa of New Mexico State University in one of many responses VISTA received after the posting of an inquiry on the Internet. Though Villa is conducting research that suggests it may not be happening any more, Michael Newman, a professor at New York University, sees evidence daily that Spanish is being lost. "It seems to me that Spanish is already following the usual immigrant pattern, in New York at least. I have in my classes any number of semi-speakers of Spanish and non-speakers who are Hispanic in origin. I have very few, if any, fully bilingual second-generation speakers."

Attitudes a Major Factor
Attitudes about language will play a powerful role in Spanish's future. "I work with bilingual education programs in the Northwest," wrote Gary Hargett of Portland, Ore., "and I have observed that Spanish-speaking children soon begin choosing English among themselves, even when there is permission, even encouragement, to use Spanish. I think children readily perceive that English is the language of privilege and power. That would bode ill for the future of Spanish."

A less than enthusiastic attitude about Spanish seems to be shared even by some who have had wide exposure to the language. Jorge Guitart teaches Spanish at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "My children and my brother's children, all born or raised here (in the U.S.) have a passive knowledge of home Spanish...Although they all have a college education and even have taken courses in Hispanic literature, they don't read anything in Spanish nor are they interested."

To be sure, there are plenty of contrary examples. College student Richard E. Oceguera shared his story: "I'm a Latino from California, and was not taught Spanish as the result of the prejudice my grandparents endured while growing up in L.A. during the 1930s and 1940s. When they had their own children, they opted not to pass the language on. It was their way of 'protecting' their kids from the evils of prejudice. Thus, my parents didn't have a commitment to Mexican culture and language to pass on to me. However, as I grew older, I became increasingly concerned with learning my ancestral language. Since high school (I'm now entering my final semester of college), I have studied Spanish language and Latino culture. I'm committed to mastering my language and passing it on to others who too want to learn."

Oceguera's commitment to reclaiming Spanish probably reflects what Steve Schaufele of Urbana, Ill., had in mind when he wrote: "Given the current health of the U.S. Hispanic community and the level of its emotional investment in its distinctive culture, I would say that American Spanish as one of the principal vehicles of that culture has an excellent chance of surviving indefinitely."

Yet the case for the fading of Spanish is bolstered by data such as that from a recent study in Dade County (Greater Miami), Fla. In that traditional stronghold of Spanish, the study found that only 2 percent of public high school students graduate as full-fledged bilinguals.

The Debate over Spanglish
That mixture of languages called "Spanglish," celebrated by some as poetic and as the real native tongue of U.S. Hispanics, is denounced by others as a corruption and a brief stop on the road to the extinction of Spanish. Roberto González Echevarría, a leading literary critic who holds a chair at Yale University, recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece titled "Kay Possa?!" that "those who condone and even promote it (Spanglish) as a harmless commingling do not realize that this is hardly a relationship based on equality. Spanglish is an invasion of Spanish by English."

Other scholars have argued that the mixing of languages and bilingualism are not two-way streets. In the case of the United States, Spanish speakers tend to become bilingual, but English speakers do not. When all the native Spanish speakers become bilingual, the need to speak Spanish tends to disappear.

It has all happened before. German was once a flourishing language in the United States. German immigration then slowed to a trickle and World War I fostered anti-German feelings and English-only measures. Today, more than 45 million Americans declare their main ancestry as German, but only 1.5 million claim to speak the language. "My heritage is German," wrote Pam Lucas of Oregon. "My dad was born into a German-speaking world in Nebraska in 1915, but...World War I soon halted just about everything remotely connected to the German culture. I feel cheated my dad couldn't pass the language and culture on to me. We can wipe out a language in one generation. I think it is a crime."

A Different Fate for Spanish?
The debate continues over whether Spanish is following the same path. When U.S. Hispanics reach the 100 million mark-projected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census to be around 2050-how many will be able to carry on a conversation, read a newspaper, or write a letter in the language of Cervantes and García Márquez?

There are reasons to believe Spanish will follow a different course than German and other immigrant languages. Strictly speaking, Spanish is not an immigrant language. It was here before English, its presence in North America preceding the founding of the United States. In the isolated mountain communities of New Mexico and in towns on the Mexican border, Spanish has been spoken continuously for hundreds of years. Spanish is the native language of Puerto Rico: Puerto Ricans are native U.S. citizens. Among non-English languages in the United States, Spanish has shown remarkable resilience.

In addition to tradition, Spanish has advantages Polish, German, or Italian did not enjoy at the turn of the century. The sheer size of the Spanish-speaking population worldwide, the communications revolution and the emergence of a global economy mean there are more opportunities to use the language and more economic incentives for retaining it. "It is for these reasons-proximity, globalization, and new economic structures-that I think Spanish will be very different in the U.S. from German and other languages of immigration," wrote Joseph Lo Bianco, an Australia-based expert who has studied the issue of languages internationally.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas-stretching from Alaska to Patagonia and scheduled for implementation in 2005-will lead to more cultural interaction, increase the demand for bilingual personnel in the United States, and reduce the chances for a radical decrease in immigration from Latin America.

Immigration's Key Role
Immigration is the single most important factor working in favor of Spanish in the United States. About half of the 700,000 to one million legal immigrants who arrive annually come from Spanish-speaking countries. The percentage is higher for the estimated annual flow of 300,000 undocumented immigrants, according to Immigration and Naturalization figures.

The supply of newly arrived Spanish speakers will not dry up any time soon. Though the U.S. Congress in 1996 passed the toughest immigration laws since the 1920s, legal immigration ceilings were not reduced at all. But as the Hispanic presence in the United States continues to rise through immigration and high birth rates, there are sure to be renewed calls for ending immigration.

For now, population trends, especially in certain areas of the country, point to a long life for Spanish. "In California, Latinos are growing twice as fast as whites," wrote Gene García of the University of California at Berkeley. "The state predicts that the school population will be majority Latino by 2008. This population remains mostly first-generation immigrant...therefore, young children are likely to learn Spanish or become bilingual...The best predictor of a vitality of a language is whether that language is spoken by young children."

Whether young children learn the language depends primarily on the family. The most effective way to raise a bilingual child is for the parents to consistently speak to him or her in Spanish in the home and to provide a variety of reading materials in that language.

Keeping Spanish Alive
Another key factor in Spanish's long-term future here is the availability of programs to teach Spanish to native speakers. Since the early 1980s, there has been a legislative and educational backlash against bilingual programs, which some say hinder learning. Yet, an impressive body of literature indicates that well-crafted bilingual programs can increase educational achievement and help students develop the home language.

In the United States, non-English languages always have existed alongside English, but their presence has been seen more as a temporary inconvenience than as a valuable national resource. Critics of bilingualism ask why Spanish should be any different. "The U.S. is an English-speaking country," wrote Meg, an English as a second language teacher. "The idea that one might immigrate to a new country and impose one's own language should have been outlawed."

The attack on bilingual education continues to intensify. Ron Unz, an unsuccessful candidate for California's Republican gubernatorial nomination, is gathering signatures to place an initiative on the ballot to eliminate bilingual education.

Cecilia Pino, an associate professor of Spanish who founded and directs the Spanish for Native Speakers Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, draws a sharp distinction between bilingual education and Spanish for native speakers programs. "Our emphasis is on the need to maintain our heritage language. We don't do any English language instruction." The key to successfully teaching Spanish starts with valuing each student's dialect and working from there to develop skills for use in academic and professional settings. Too often students have been told their Spanish is wrong, discouraging them from learning the language. In some schools, students have been punished for speaking Spanish in the classroom.

James L. Fidelholtz, a linguist at the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico, says there are many reasons Spanish will survive, but cautions, "All this is not to say that the virtual extinction of Spanish in the U.S. is impossible...The best way to avoid this tragic to widely publicize the great and real benefits for all which bilingualism brings."

Perhaps the best answer to the question of Spanish's future in the United States is that it depends on us. As Steve Schaufele wrote: "As a general rule, a language will survive if the community that uses it cares enough to invest effort to maintain it."

Will we?

Max J. Castro , Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the North-South Center at the University of Miami.