The Overwhelming Allure of English

LOS ANGELES—A GENERATION of large-scale Latin American immigration has turned Spanish into the unofficial second language of the United States.

In early March, Texas held the nation’s first-ever gubernatorial debate in Spanish. President Bush never misses an opportunity to show that he, too, can speak the language of Cervantes. Meanwhile, with the press of a button, most automated teller machines can communicate with customers in digital Spanish. From the streets of Miami to Los Angeles, it sometimes feels as if Spanish is giving English a run for its money. But even with this proliferation of Spanish, the United States is still, in the words of one prominent sociologist, a country that is a “language graveyard” for foreign tongues. While many Americans fret over the state of their nation’s primary language, there are signs everywhere that English is triumphant both at home and abroad.

As the United States strengthens its position as the world’s economic superpower, the global reach of its popular culture — and accompanying English language — only grows. By mid-century, half the planet is expected to be more or less proficient in English, compared to roughly 12 percent now. Why should the American-born children of immigrants be somehow immune to the rising power of the international language of diplomacy and commerce?

Still, there is a growing concern that the rise of Spanish threatens the pre-eminence of English in America. Last month, Iowa became the 27th state to declare English its official language — the 10th since 1995. While The Des Moines Register dismissed the act as “an embarrassment” perpetrated by a “bunch of yahoos in the Legislature,” four out of five Iowans supported it.

To be sure, the United States’ proximity to Latin America combined with the sheer size and continuous nature of Latino migration has changed the nation’s cultural landscape. Mass media, modern transportation and the Internet all nurture Spanish in the United States in a way inconceivable to earlier waves of immigrants. And unlike those who came before, today’s immigrants can hear their native tongue on morning drive-time radio and watch soap operas from their homeland in the evening. Over the last decade, Spanish-language TV and radio boomed in the nation’s largest media markets.

But while immigration has powered the rise of Spanish-language media, a new demographic trend is already shifting the balance in favor of English — even in the heaviest immigrant media markets in America. In Los Angeles, home to the nation’s largest Latino immigrant population, Spanish-language radio stations routinely topped the charts for most of the 1990’s. But the growth of Spanish-language radio leveled off in the last few years. For the past nine months, KROQ, an alternative, youth-oriented rock station, has snagged the region’s highest overall ratings. It is the first time since 1991 that an English-language station has remained No. 1 for three consecutive ratings periods. A fragmented Spanish-language radio market helped KROQ, but the station has a fundamental trend on its side.

“The Hispanic share of our listenership has increased gradually over the past 10 years,” says Trip Reeb, KROQ’s general manager. Without actively seeking to broaden its ethnic appeal, the station, long considered “white,” now has a 40 percent Latino audience. In fact, a growing number of mainstream English-language radio stations find themselves with sizable Latino audiences. “Right when everyone is discovering the importance of using Spanish, we’re seeing Latinos become the backbone of the English-language audience,” said Patricia Suarez, president of Suarez/Frommer & Associates, an advertising firm in Pasadena, Calif.

Sometime in the 1990’s, demographers say, the foreign-born portion of the Latino population reached its peak. In other words, on the basis of current projections, from now on the immigrant or first generation will be a smaller percentage of Hispanic America. According to Barry Edmonston, the head of the Population Research Center at Portland State University, the fastest-growing segment of the Latino population is the third generation, which is projected to triple by 2040. The second generation, is expected to double. “In every immigrant experience, there is a shift from immigrant culture to ethnic American culture,” said Mr. Edmonston. “Hispanics are in the middle of that shift right now.”

As American Latinos now become less an immigrant market and more an ethnic market, the equation of Latinos with Spanish is beginning to fade. While slower to make the shift than other immigrant groups, Latino linguistic assimilation is not entirely unlike that of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. According to the 1990 Census, fully two-thirds of third-generation Latino children spoke only English. And while bilingualism does persist longer within Latino families, particularly along the border region, there is no indication this precludes the use of English as the primary language.

As in past waves of immigration, the first generation tends to learn only enough English to get by; the second is bilingual; and the third tends to be English-dominant if not monolingual.

“The big picture is that bilingualism is very difficult to maintain in the U.S., and by the third generation it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain,” said Richard Alba, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany. “This is because English is so dominant and so highly rewarded.”

It makes sense that the shift to English is being felt first in the youth entertainment market. A two-year-old study by Nielsen Media Research shows that even in households where the adults speak Spanish, younger Latinos prefer to watch television in English. In fact, the preference for English over Spanish becomes more lopsided the younger the demographic. Nickelodeon, the children’s cable network, has embraced mainstream Latino characters more than any other network.

Two years ago, the Walt Disney Company failed in the first large-scale effort by a Hollywood studio to broaden its domestic Latino base. But after simultaneously releasing an English and Spanish-language version of the animated film “The Emperor’s New Groove” in 16 theaters, the studio pulled the dubbed version for lack of interest. “The Latino audience clearly came out for the movie, but that audience definitely preferred to see it in English,” said Richard W. Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group.

Similarly, even as the Latino population exploded, Spanish-language movie theaters in Southern California were closing. In the last half of the 1990’s, a company that screens foreign and dubbed films cut the number of its movie houses dedicated to Spanish-speaking audiences by more than half. Like Americans at large, the average Latino moviegoer is a teenager. And the average Latino teenager is American-born and more eager to see a contemporary English-language action film than the art-house fare from contemporary Latin America. In fact, a recent study of the children of immigrants found that by the end of high school 9 in 10 preferred to speak English and 98 percent spoke it proficiently.

AT the same time, Spanish is certainly not going away in the regions of the country that serve as gateways to new immigrants. American-born Latinos can enjoy Latin-American soap operas or old-fashioned boleros on the radio. But like children of immigrants in the past, the descendants of today’s newcomers will negotiate their work lives and create art and music in the language in which they are schooled. While bilingual education is often blamed for the persistence of Spanish in the United States, most such programs are designed to shift the child into English-speaking classes within three or four years. In addition, a few elementary school years in Spanish do not give students adult-level proficiency. Even in Miami, the nation’s quintessential bilingual city, international corporations complain of a shortage of fully bilingual workers to conduct business with Latin Americans in professional Spanish.

Thus, despite the obvious benefits of bilingualism in a globalizing world, English still overwhelms the languages that immigrants bring to these shores. Not unlike previous large waves of immigrants, Latinos are introducing words and phrases of their native language into mainstream English. But within generations of arriving in America, Latinos eager to read the classic works of Cervantes or Gabriel Garcia Marquez will most likely do so through English translations.

Gregory Rodriguez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research institute.

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