Will bilingual trend make US 'habla Espaol'?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin has your daughter dancing around the house singing "Livin' la vida loca."

You turn on the TV and hear both Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigning for the highest office in the land - in Spanish.

Is the United States truly becoming bilingual, and is it gradually losing the glue of a common language that some English-only promoters say has saved the country from a dangerous balkanization?

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No, say cultural experts here in El Paso, Texas, where 70 percent of the population is Hispanic and Spanish has long been in common and abundant use.

Behind the stagefront of proliferating Spanish use lies the same process of transition to English that has marked the integration of other immigrant populations into US culture.

True, with 30 million Hispanics making up about 9 percent of the US population, the sheer number of Spanish speakers in the US, after high immigration over the past two decades plus the advent of Spanish-language electronic media, means more Spanish is being spoken, in more parts of the country, and within earshot of the English-speaking majority. But there's a counterbalancing trend: More Spanish speakers are also speaking English.

"It's true that census figures show mother-tongue Spanish speakers at an all-time high," says Jon Amastae, a linguist and director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). "But any generational studies of language use also show that the Hispanic population is doing what every other immigrant group did before them - adopting English."

Studies show "significant" loss of the mother tongue by the third generation, Dr. Amastae says. "With the last wave of immigration it's too soon to really document it," he adds, "but it shows up."

A recent study by Strategy Research Corp. in Miami found that while 86 percent of Hispanics still feel most comfortable speaking Spanish, the percentage who feel most comfortable with English is growing - as is the number of Hispanics learning English.

English still dominates US media ...

But for all the Spanish programming, on TV shows like "Christina" and all-Spanish news channels, the dominant media and pop culture in the US remain English speaking. And Spanish speakers continue to learn English as other immigrants did: primarily for economic reasons, but also to fit in better in their new home and to communicate with family members (especially younger ones) who use less Spanish.

In the US economy, the better-paying jobs, particularly those including technical work, require a proficiency in English. In El Paso, for example, laid-off garment workers who before could sew clothing just fine speaking only Spanish are now filling English classes as the first step toward finding a new job.

... and the Internet

Even beyond the US, more and more job seekers know that knowledge of English is an important plus. English is the language of commerce in a globalizing world, with computers and the Internet spreading English, at least for now. The advent of rapid computerized translations may change this at some point, experts say, but right now English rules. The vast majority of communications carried on the Web - 70 to 85 percent, by some estimates - are in English.

"We have in the US a paradox where more Spanish is being spoken than ever before, while at the same time more Hispanics are learning English than in the past," says Richard Teschner, a UTEP professor of languages and linguistics.

He says about half of Hispanics in the US are bilingual, while a quarter are monolingual in English and another quarter - generally the newest arrivals - are monolingual in Spanish.

For Dr. Teschner, the engine for these changes is what he calls the "great American job-creating machine," which he says is responsible for both the continuing arrival of new Spanish speakers and the adoption of English by many Hispanics. "Once Hispanics move up on the job ladder and out to the suburbs," he says, "the use of English accelerates."

A language of new arrivals

It is primarily the flow of new Hispanic immigrants that will keep Spanish alive in the US, experts say. Noting that half of all immigrants are now Spanish speakers, University of Southern California linguist Carmen Silva-Corvaln says Spanish would lose its place as an important language in the US relatively quickly if not for the new arrivals.

Although Hispanics are expected to grow to 25 percent of the US population by 2050, she notes that the number of Spanish speakers will not grow commensurately. And while some English supporters in the US worry that widespread Spanish mass media mean Spanish speakers won't feel obliged to learn English, Teschner doesn't agree.

Surprisingly, the Strategy Research study found US Hispanics reading and viewing English-language media almost as much as those in Spanish. Teschner says the result is that current balancing trends will continue, with more Spanish being spoken in the US even as more Spanish-speaking immigrants learn English.

The only veering away from that scenario, he says, depends on either a protracted economic depression or some highly unlikely event like a war. "In 1914 German was every bit as powerful in the US as Spanish today," he says. But with World War I the teaching of German was banned across the country. "Today the problem for the people who want to stop the growth of Spanish is the economy. Unless it takes a sharp dive, the Spanish-speaking immigrants will keep coming."

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