Toward a bilingual America

Spanish is growing fast in the U.S. and Americans are starting to notice

The top spot in the Los Angeles radio market belongs to KSCA-FM, a station that broadcasts in Spanish. Yes, that’s right. It beats all the other radio stations including those that broadcast in English.

Is the success of radio in Spanish an omen of a Canadian-style bilingual America?

Although English dominates the linguistic landscape in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, Spanish is without a doubt a very important language and Americans are paying attention.

Spanish is the most popular foreign language in American high schools,
colleges, and universities. Figures released by the Modern Language Association reveal that for the first time in the history of foreign language enrolments, Spanish accounts for more than 50 per cent of the total. All the other foreign languages put together-French, German, Russian,
Italian, Japanese – attract fewer students than Spanish. Spanish is still a vital language in elementary schools in spite of the anti- bilingual education movement spearheaded by Ron Unz. The software entrepreneur managed to get the Golden State voters to approve Proposition 227, which all but eliminated bilingual education in California. However, other states are continuing the programs and although many different languages are involved,
Spanish is the most widely used one.

The importance of Spanish in education is reflected in the wallet.
Researchers at the University of Miami found that linguistic knowledge among Hispanic families shapes family income in surprising ways. Families who spoke only Spanish had an average income of $18,000; those with only English, $32,000. Those with both Spanish and English, however, averaged
$50,376.

Bilingual employees of the city of Los Angeles in designated positions earn 5 per cent more than their monolingual colleagues. And bilingual teachers in the Los Angeles School District receive a yearly bonus of $5,000.

Companies are very well aware of the connection between Spanish and business. When you make a phone call, AT&T and other major phone companies ask you to push one for English and two for Spanish.

And if you watch television in Spanish, you see commercials from major American as well as international companies trying to capture more business.

In international trade Spanish is also vital. Florida controls 50 per cent of the trade with Caribbean countries and Central America. The Spanish language plays a key role.

But even within the U.S. business, particularly in California, Texas, New Jersey, New York and Florida, Spanish means sales and companies often prefer bilingual employees to monolingual ones. It’s a business decision. Knowledge of the language represents a vital skill. Politicians are also very much aware of the importance of Spanish. George W. Bush often uses his knowledge of Spanish in his speeches to his advantage. Unlike many other Republican politicians, who routinely get small percentages of Latino votes, Bush received 49 per cent of the Latino vote in his re-election as governor of Texas. Of course, it would be simplistic to attribute Bush’s success with Latino voters to his use of Spanish, but it’s certainly a significant factor.

Not to be outdone, Al Gore recently remembered that he had studied Spanish as a teenager. He often uses what he knows in his speeches.

Of course, the emerging importance of Spanish exasperates some Americans.
U.S. English was created largely to defend the primacy of the English language vis-a-vis the competition created by Spanish.

The anti-bilingual movement started by Ron Unz, while ostensibly aimed at children learning English, has a lot to do with combating Spanish and maintaining English as the country’s language. In an article published in Commentary Magazine, Unz argued for a return to the idea of the melting pot to assimilate immigrants instead of following ”diversity.” It’s no wonder that Unz’s Web site is called Onenation.org. In spite of the obvious importance and necessity of Spanish, English remains the language of the U.S. and indeed of the world. While it might be possible to live in the U.
S. without knowing English, the knowledge of Shakespeare’s language will open doors that Cervantes’s won’t. You cannot become a lawyer, doctor or professor with just Spanish. No American university offers its programs in a language other than English. Spanish-speakers in the U.S. are very well aware of the need to learn English. Yet, Spanish-speaking immigrants seem to retain the knowledge of their language for two or even three generations while other ethnic groups lose their languages much faster.

Will the rising importance of Spanish turn America into a truly bilingual country? Unlikely, however I am very glad to know Spanish. If I didn’t, I’d start studying it right now.


– Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif.



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