A tale of 2 languages: for Hispanic immigrants, shift to English is slow, but sure

Proud and ambitious, Jorge Illingworth brought his wife Lourdes and his two tiny sons from Hermosillo, Mexico, to Los Angeles in 1956. Here, he made corn tortillas for a frozen food company. The Illingworths spoke Spanish at home, and Mr. Illingworth spoke Spanish at work.

They were Spanish-speaking people in the Spanish-speaking world of East Los Angeles. But they were in the doorway to a larger world that spoke English. And like generations of other immigrants to this country, their children stepped into that world, which was like walking alone into a dark room.

Jorge Jr. went to school knowing only a little English he had picked up watching television. Teachers stood at the blackboard giving directions, and he whispered to his neighbor in Spanish to find out what to do. He spent years in special-education classes until he demanded the tests that proved he was not retarded. ''I just felt so lost,'' he says now.

For young Jorge, it was junior high school before he felt comfortable in English, and now - almost finished with his undergraduate degree at California State University, Los Angeles - he still encounters common words and idioms he doesn't know.

But he made life easier for his younger brother, Carlos, and Carlos and Jorge brought still more English home to Julio, then Ricardo, Lourdes, Miguel, and Eduardo.

Now, says Eduardo, the Illingworth children speak Spanish only to their parents. ''It feels awkward to speak Spanish to each other.''

What has happened with the Illingworths is what has always happened with the vast majority of immigrant families in this country. Though the parents speak mostly their native language, the children become primarily speakers of English.

Although Mexican-Americans have made the language shift more slowly than most European immigrant groups in the past, and more slowly than Cubans and Puerto Ricans in the East now, most research shows that the traditional pattern still holds.

The upshot is that - at least as far as language is concerned - America is still a melting pot, and not a linguistic salad bowl. Spanish is the language of immigrants. Their children speak English.

Now Julio Illingworth, who was an honors student in college, is an electronic test engineer with Hughes Aircraft. The family, gathered in his air-conditioned apartment in the 105-degree heat, talks of little but education and the dozens of little dramas it has put them through.

Jorge and Lourdes Illingworth are good-natured and unaffected, but they are proud and they are tough. They are proud of their Mexican past and the Spanish language. They have been tough in making sure their children succeed in English - Mrs. Illingworth tirelessly lobbying principals to shift her children out of slow classes and out from under bad teachers. All seven have made it to college.

''We have three graduates already,'' says the senior Jorge, smiling with pride.

Carlos Illingworth and his wife are bilingual public school teachers. Although they speak mostly English to each other, they speak only Spanish to their two-year-old son. Already he understands English as well as Spanish.

The rise of Spanish in the Southwestern United States sometimes brings on comparisons to French-speaking Quebec, with its separatist movement and cultural conflict with English-speaking Canada.

''There is no comparison whatsoever,'' says Calvin Veltman, a sociolinguist at the University of Quebec at Montreal. In Quebec, he points out, only 2 percent of native speakers of French become primarily English-speaking. In the US Southwest, 60 percent of those native to Spanish adopt English.

''Hispanics will survive as an ethnic identity, but not as a language group, '' says Dr. Veltman, who has done much of his research on Mexican-Americans. ''If the border closed, Spanish would fade out.''

There are exceptions. BorderAcities like El Paso are truly bilingual. ''But they are also fluid,'' says David Lopez, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). ''People are always moving in from Mexico and up into the inland US.''

There are also isolated towns in the mountains of northern New Mexico where a form of Spanish is spoken that dates from before the US was a nation. Yet when these ''Hispanos'' move to Albuquerque, Dr. Lopez says, they go through the same language shift as Mexican immigrants.

Many young Mexican-American adults harbor the hope that Spanish will not fade out, that they can keep their parents' language alive alongside their new tongue.

''I'm very optimistic,'' says Marco Palma of the prospects for his one-and-a-half-year-old son to raise Spanish-speaking children. ''Especially in southern California. Here, there's a lot of promise.''

Mr. Palma and his wife, Teresita Saracho de Palma, speak only Spanish in their house, so that Allende - named after the Chilean leader Salvador Allende Gossens, who was killed during a coup in 1973 - will grow up speaking the language of his grandparents and the Hispanic community.

What the Palmas want for Allende is a thoroughly bicultural life. ''We're very idealistic,'' Palma admits, after breakfast in the young family's house in Highland Park, on the northeast side of Los Angeles. They want him to know English as well as his peers in school. And they want him to remain a part of the Hispanic community.

Teresita's father is a handyman, born in the US, who worked many years in Mexico. Marco's father is a cook, a trade he learned at the bracero labor camp that brought him to this country when Marco was seven.

Marco and Teresita met while students at the University of Southern California. She is an adviser for bilingual special education to the Los Angeles Unified School District. marco has finished law school at UCLA and is preparing to take the bar exam. By most standards, they have joined the middle class. But they insist they will never leave their lower-class heritage behind. They recently turned their garage into a bilingual school, ''L'Escuelita,'' where Teresita is teaching 14 children this summer, and will teach on Saturdays this coming year.

''People that lose their ability to speak Spanish and associate with Mexican people,'' Marco explains, ''no longer think of themselves as being a part of a people that have a history of being oppressed in a lot of ways.''

''We want Allende to have a history.''

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