Surprise! English Is Alive And Well in South Florida

After bitter disputes over language, Miami area is becoming fully bilingual

AMERICAN Airlines employee Giovanni Arias effortlessly slips from English to Spanish, with a stop in "Spanglish" on the way as he makes his rounds in the airport here. At the nearby newsstand, an African-American cashier watches a customer struggle to count her change and offers helpfully "diecisiete - 17 cents is your change."

After 15 years of bitter language battles in the courts, ballot box, and business, it would appear that Spanish has won its fight to be taken seriously, if not to dominate in much of Miami's public life. But underneath, English is dominating, experts say.

"Our figures show that 49 percent of the kids in our schools are Hispanic, but by the time they leave the sixth grade, English is the dominant language," said Mercedes Toural, director of Bilingual Education and Foreign Languages for the Dade County Public Schools, including Miami's schools. "Contrary to what some people think, we are immersed in an English-speaking country. The kids want to be like other kids, and they think, dream, and speak in English."

In the halls of Miami High School, where some 80 percent of the students are Hispanic, the language most often heard is English. Young Latinos in this city say they virtually never watch Channels 23 or 56, the two Spanish-language stations. Mr. Arias says, "My mother likes them." But he and his friends tune in to MTV or standard Hollywood sitcoms and cop shows.

But despite this English dominance, 39 percent of children enrolling in kindergarten have limited English language skills. That's because parents - even professionals who have earned degrees at United States universities - are making a conscious choice to speak Spanish at home to keep the culture alive.

"We know that a child tends to be English-proficient by the end of the first grade, but if you don't work on the other language, the child will never be proficient in it," Ms. Toural says.

But the desire to keep Spanish language and culture alive is no longer only found among aging exiles who fled Fidel Castro's Cuba, nor young-to-middle-age Hispanic parents.

Toural and others see a new "roots" phenomenon growing when children reach their 20s. Parents who used to speak Spanish to their children and invariably got an English reply now hear them answer in their native tongue. Even Gloria Estefan, the singer, has recorded her latest album entirely in Spanish.

The seesaw commitment to Spanish among Miami's youths can be seen in the enrollment in "Spanish for Spanish speakers" courses. Some 97 percent of Hispanic elementary-school children take these courses, but in middle school, only 17 percent take them. The number climbs to as high as 35 percent in high school, as students realize that writing and reading in Spanish could be the key to finding a good job.

It is the continuing inflow of commerce, tourism, and immigrants from Latin America that has kept Spanish a vibrant part of Miami's social and economic life, unlike French, Polish, German, Yiddish, and other immigrant tongues of America.

A 1982 study "found that for 80 percent of US-born Cubans, English was the main language," Max Castro wrote in his 1992 book "Miami Now!, Immigration, Ethnicity and Social Change." "English tends to replace Spanish as the dominant language intergenerationally," he wrote. "Continuing immigration to Miami masks this intergenerational process."

A decade ago, south Florida's language confusion sparked the first of a series of nationwide efforts to promote English and ban Spanish bilingualism in schools and public life.

With the 1990 census showing that Spanish is spoken in the homes of more than half the 2 million residents of Dade County, it came as an anticlimax when, in May, the Metro Commission repealed the divisive 1980 antibilingual law. It barred spending public money on Spanish language and culture. The repeal was a sign that Hispanics, who already have elected some of their own as Miami mayor and to Congress, have the political clout to defend their culture.

BUT many of the "Anglos" (English-speaking whites) most bitterly opposed to the continuing influx of Latinos since 1960 were no longer around to feel the law's effects: Some 200,000 of these whites have fled north to largely non-Hispanic Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach County. They have been replaced by 125,000 Cubans from the 1981 Mariel boat lift, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans fleeing their civil war, and tens of thousands of other Latin Americans.

Now the Miami area is the only major metropolitan area in the US where Spanish is spoken in a majority of homes, where the major daily newspaper, the Miami Herald, publishes a free Spanish-language issue, and where the radio dial is jammed with salsa music and impassioned Latino political commentary, often aimed at Mr. Castro just 90 miles across the sea from Key West, Fla.

Latin immigrants have tended to hire one another, which has shut out African-Americans from many entry-level jobs and led to polarization of these two groups.

But some blacks, such as the cashier at the airport here, are learning Spanish language skills and giving in to the realities of living with the commercially vital, if not dominant (at least for the moment) Spanish language.

Unless an immigration fence is erected around south Florida, demographic impulses - especially if communism is overturned in Cuba - will likely continue to join with commerce and tourism to keep Spanish language and culture alive in Miami, creating perhaps the first fully bilingual community in the nation.

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