What is the "granny factor"
and how it helps conservation
of Spanish in the US
About 42 million people living in the US speak Spanish at home. The vast majority are second or third generation immigrants. But if they don't study it in school and live in an environment dominated by English, how do they keep it? In the grandmothers is the key.
Amber Nuño is 28 years old and grew up in East Los Angeles, California (USA). She feels more comfortable speaking English but she understands Spanish perfectly and speaks it with her grandmother Gloria.
"The main reason I speak Spanish is because of my grandmother," she says.
Gloria López, 72, arrived in the United States almost 60 years ago. He never went to school, neither in Mexico nor in the US, and he says that he learned to read a little and that he writes very badly. But his oral Spanish is very nice and varied. And that was passed on to his grandchildren. "I always spoke to my grandchildren in Spanish because I don't speak English. Spanish has been preserved because I speak to them since they were born," he says in a telephone conversation.
Similarly, Valeria Alvarado, 24, who grew up in southeast Houston, Texas, says that thanks to her Mexican grandmother Ema, she can speak Spanish fluently. "I wouldn't have my job if I didn't speak Spanish like I speak with my grandmother," he says.
She is a legal assistant for an organization that helps migrant minors who arrive in the United States without their parents.
It is estimated that in the United States there are some 42 million people who speak Spanish at home and that in 2060, the country will have the second most Spanish-speakers in the world, after Mexico, according to 2021 data from the Cervantes Institute.
Both Amber and Valeria post bilingual content on the social network TikTok with the hashtag #abuelamexicana. Their grandmothers were key to keeping the Spanish language alive and active in the family because at school they only learned the subjects in English.
This phenomenon of the preservation of the Spanish language among first and third generation immigrants in the United States was called by Kim Potowski, a linguist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, as the "grandmother factor."
"I call the grandmother factor the fact that if the grandparents who emigrated as adults from Mexico, or from anywhere, are close to home or there is frequent contact with them, the child is more likely to develop strong Spanish," she says. Potowsk.
"And I say grandmother because we usually talk about grandmothers, but it doesn't have to be female. Although we all know that women deal with a huge proportion of childcare," she adds.
And that description fits perfectly with the examples of Amber and Valeria.
"We live in a duplex," says the young woman from Los Angeles. "My grandmother lives in the secret annexe. I grew up with her, I used to clean houses with her after school. We did everything together when I was a child," she says.
For her part, Valeria details that her grandmother Ema, 71, traveled from Mexico to Houston in 2000 to take care of her and her two younger brothers. "While my parents worked, because they both had to work to survive, they left us with my grandmother," she says.
And Grandma Ema, who doesn't speak English, stayed in the United States. "I did not come here following the American dream, I came here following my grandchildren," he says.
"I always spoke to them in Spanish. They didn't speak Spanish, but I struggled," she says proudly.
Who best preserves Spanish in the United States?
According to Professor Kim Potowski, the "grandma factor" can happen in any of the communities where migrants are concentrated in the United States, whether they are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Cuban, to name a few. "The grandmother who is monolingual in Spanish is going to help you with your Spanish," he says.
However, when it comes to which migrant group to the United States speaks Spanish more "proficiently" -an Americanism to refer to achievement, aptitude and knowledge-, the population of Mexican origin has some advantages. "What we saw is that proficiency in Spanish tends to be a little bit higher among second- and third-generation Mexicans compared to their Puerto Rican counterparts," says Potowski in a Chicago-based study soon to be published in the book "Spanish in Chicago" ("The Spanish in Chicago").
In addition to the "grandmother factor" there are some other elements that can explain this phenomenon, such as residence patterns. "Puerto Ricans -and this is documented in Chicago and New York- come to live in neighborhoods where there is already a cousin or a relative and where there are generally many African-Americans. So they are living with a lot of English," the professor describes.
"While Mexicans arrive in neighborhoods where the population is 99.99% Mexican, then there is a stronger concentration of Spanish speakers around," he adds.
When asked about Spanish among Cuban immigrants, Potowski analyzes that there is a racial and socioeconomic issue.
"Those who emigrated in the 1960s were from higher socioeconomic classes and lighter skinned. They tend to evaluate their Spanish more positively than those who arrived closer in time and who tend to be poorer, with more black influence," he says.
"Afro-Latino Spanish is criticized because it is spoken by a person from that community," he emphasizes.
There is also an educational factor that affects the conservation of the Spanish language in the Cuban community. "I know that in Miami the attitudes towards bilingual education are not very favorable," says the specialist.
"It seems that people have no interest in children at school learning in Spanish. That has strong implications for the retention of the language among Cubans. So it is lost to the third generation just as quickly as in the rest of the country." , it states.
Will the granny factor go away?
The third generations of those Spanish-speaking migrants who arrived in the United States do not usually speak Spanish with the same proficiency as their grandparents.
"Spanish is being lost in families. I tell my students: 'When you are the grandmother, what are you going to do? You are not going to have the ability that your grandmother had,'" reflects Potowski.
But the teacher is optimistic.
"It is lost, but it is refreshed with the new (migratory) waves that arrive and with dual immersion schools (where most subjects are taught in Spanish or in another language besides English). They are not a magic wand, but they really help students develop skills," says Potowski.
Grandma Gloria highlights the value of young people speaking Spanish. "I understand that it is not easy to speak Spanish. I am happy that they speak a little and try to improve it, if they can, so that they help others, because knowing more languages is an asset, mija," she says.
Ema highlights her role as a grandmother beyond language: "I hope this reaches many people, because grandmothers have a lot of history, history in Spanish."
We took this interesting article and added a photo of a grandmother with her grandchildren in Broward County