Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Spanish in the USA: Growing or Waning? Columnists
Spanish in the USA: Growing or Waning?
By Frank Gómez

Just when we were getting used to saying proudly that Spanish is no longer a “foreign language” but the “second language” of the United States, a report appears that questions the assumption that Spanish use is growing.  State University of New York at Albany researchers say that English is the preferred language of children and grandchildren of Latin American immigrants.

This news surely gave comfort to Samuel Huntington and others who believe Spanish-speaking immigrants endanger “American” culture.  The study holds that forecasts of growth of Spanish use overlook forces that bring about assimilation.  Conducted by Richard Alba, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Urban and Regional Research at SUNY-Albany, it notes that pursuit of the “American dream” through entry into the mainstream drives immigrants and their descendants toward English. 

 Based on 2000 Census data, the study found that 71% of third- or fourth-generation Hispanics spoke English exclusively at home (vs. 64% in 1990).  It points out, however, that exceptions exist along the US-Mexico border and among Dominicans in New York City who maintain close ties with their homeland. 

The issue merits a second look.  The media reported widely on the story, but appeared not to ask some obvious questions.  Is the 2000 Census the right source for assimilation and language usage trends?  Do other studies confirm or contradict the SUNY findings?  Do other factors help boost Spanish use?

The Power of Media

Spanish language media growth has been phenomenal.  Hispanic print is so attractive that mainstream companies – even foreign investors – are buying or creating publications.  Having done their homework, they conclude that their shareholders will be served by investing in Spanish language properties.  Hernán Guaracao, publisher of Philadelphia weekly El Día, and president of the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP), welcomes them.  Their entry, he says, “forces us to sharpen our business skills and practices to remain competitive.”

In 2004, Recoletos, a Spanish company, became the principal investor in the new Rumbo dailies in Austin, Houston, McAllen-Harlingen and San Antonio – and these localities already had Spanish language weeklies!  The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram compete in the metro market through their new Spanish language dailies.  

A Canadian firm, Impremedia, has put together a company that includes La Opinión in Los Angeles, El Diario-La Prensa in New York, and La Raza, a Chicago weekly.  These respected, long-established papers were founded and are still run by Latinos.  They compete in those same markets with Hoy, the New York City daily founded six years ago by The Tribune Company, and which expanded to Chicago and Los Angeles in 2004.

NBC acquired Telemundo, giving that network the muscle needed to compete with Univision.  And Mexican media giant Editorial Televisa late in the year bought controlling interest in Latino-founded Hispanic Publishing Co.  Other examples abound of investments in Spanish language media.  They are founded on market research and projections of demographic growth, tastes, language use and other factors.  They would not take the risk unless their studies indicated growth – not decline – in Spanish.  

Hemispheric Demographics

We live in a Spanish-speaking hemisphere.  English is a minority language in the Americas.  Birthrates in Latin America far exceed those of the U.S. and Canada, and weak economies, turmoil and the quest for opportunity will continue to thrust Spanish-speakers on our shores for decades to come. 

Our Spanish-speaking population, therefore, will be renewed by flows of native speakers.  And these immigrants will have more children than other residents.  Admittedly, their children and grandchildren want to learn English.  They see it as a ticket to educational and economic opportunity.  But they do not necessarily discard Spanish and Hispanic cultural attributes.

Pride in Heritage

Something innate in Hispanic cultures makes Spanish hard to shed. Catholic theologian Michael Novak wrote a book 30-odd years ago entitled “The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnic.”  He held that earlier waves of immigrants (primarily Western and Eastern European) lamented their rush to “Americanize” and losing their languages and cultures.

In Northern New Mexico, without immigrant renewal, descendants of Spanish settlers of three and four hundred years ago still speak Spanish.  Relatively isolated, they have retained, and take pride in, Spanish.  Mexican Americans in the southwest, strongly influenced by Mexico and Mexican immigration, have also retained Spanish.

The best example of the retentive powers of Spanish are Sephardic Jews who, ousted from Spain five centuries ago, migrated to Istanbul and Morocco.  Others ended up in Israel, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.  Those Sephardic communities, even in linguistically isolated Istanbul, still speak Ladino, their ancient Spanish language.  After five centuries, Spanish thrives – without renewal, without immigration. 

The Bicultural and Bilingual

Writing in Hispanic Magazine last September, Argentina-born Marcela Miguel Berland described a neglected market segment she calls the “bi-bi’s,” or the bilingual and bicultural.  A new generation of Hispanics, they navigate easily from mainstream to Latino culture.  Founder of LatinInsights, a research-based strategic communications company, Berland reports that recent studies show growing pride in heritage, culture, values and language among this group in particular and among Hispanics in general.

Like Novak’s “unmeltables,” Latinos are discovering that they do not have to give up culture and language to assimilate, to become “real Americans.”  Assimilation does not require the surrender of cultural and linguistic attributes.  One can acquire English and mainstream American values and still be a Spanish-speaking Hispanic American.  Too often assimilation is portrayed as an “either-or proposition.”  Not true.  It is a “bilingual, bicultural is better” proposition, a “value added” proposition.

Corporations, including toy manufacturers and publishers, have discovered this trend, often without the benefit of empirical data.  Barnes & Noble, Borders and other bookstores feature Spanish language sections appealing to Spanish speakers who want to retain the language – and want their children and grandchildren to speak it as well.

LeapFrog markets a full line of educational toys in English and Spanish.  In fact, its much-acclaimed LeapPad learning system, with more than 60 books in English and Spanish in its “library,” is one of the most popular toys in the country.  The LeapPad is increasingly popular among Hispanic parents who want their children to learn songs, words and games that they learned as children.  And non-Hispanic parents who see the future of Spanish buy them to start their children toward bilingualism. 

Berland’s bilingual-bicultural market segment comprises a younger generation that is constantly bombarded by media messages – in English and Spanish.  Videos, music, magazines, television programs, games… the list goes on.  “The segment is growing,” she states, “and pride in language is growing.  Marketers can capitalize on the segment by studying it, understanding it and reaching it – in both languages.”

The Future of Spanish

The Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed Latinos in 2002, finding that the “second generation is substantially bilingual, and the third-plus generations are primarily English speakers.”  By the third or later generations, English-dominant Hispanics were 78%, vs. 22% who were bilingual, and 0 % were Spanish-dominant.  Bilingualism in the second generation, significantly, was slightly greater than English-dominant (47% vs. 46%).   Now, English-dominant does not mean that Latinos surveyed did not use Spanish.  It meant that they preferred English.  The SUNY-Albany study said basically the same thing.  After the third generation, Hispanics are more comfortable in English.  Should this surprise? 

The SUNY-Albany study was widely reported – but not analyzed.  The inescapable conclusion is that more research is needed.  Experts should also look at studies conducted by or for Univision, NBC-Telemundo, the investors in and creators of new publications, the National Association of Hispanic Publications and other organizations.  The 2000 Census, so unreliable in other ways, may not be the best prognosticator of Spanish use.

If the marketers, the manufacturers, Marcela Berland and others are correct, and if history is any measure, then pride, immigration, renewal, the media and other forces will make Spanish use continue to grow in the United States.  And this is good.  


Frank Gómez, a contributing columnist to (, is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer and corporate executive, and an adjunct professor of translation at New York University.  He is a member of Intérpretes y Traductores de Español (InTradES-Apuntes, Inc.), a non-profit association based in New York City. He can be reached at


1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that businesses are catering more to a bilingual/Spanish-speaking population. Yet in Texas schools, where there is so much talk of the business model, we don't cater to bilingual students; in fact, we serve them less and less in their language. (In this case, we have something to learn from the business sector!) This pressure to learn English stems from a fear that Spanish will "take over", which is ridiculous. English is a major language of the world, the language of business and technology--it isn't going to die. Unfortunately, though, what some people are afraid is going to happen to English in this country is happening to Spanish instead. Hopefully the media can keep people from countries whose language is not English connected to their language and heritage.