May 4, 2006

Spanish en los Estados Unidos adds to immigration heat

By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Politicians use it to win votes, the
business community to boost profits and sizeable numbers of
Americans see it is a threat to American culture --

Spanish in the United States.

There are more Spanish speakers in the United States than,
for example, in the whole of Venezuela, according to census
figures. First-time visitors to the United States are
perpetually astonished by how pervasive the language has
become. It is the country's unofficial second language.

Spanish dominates in Miami, is everywhere in Los Angeles
and widespread along the border with Mexico. Automatic teller
machines from coast to coast offer menus in Spanish, and there
are few toll-free telephone lines for goods or services that do
not offer a prompt for Spanish.

Despite long-running attempts to make English the official
language, the influence of Spanish in the United States is
likely to grow, driven by politics, money and demographics.

Statistics tell the story. In 1980, according to census
figures, there were 10 million Hispanics in the United States.
By 1990, the number stood at 23 million. It now is 40 million,
both legal and illegal, whose disposable income is estimated at
around $700 billion, expected to climb to $1 trillion within
the next few years.

Census projections put the number of Hispanics in 2050 at
around 105 million, a quarter of the overall population.


While a majority of those now in the country say they speak
English "very well," according to the census, marketing experts
see Spanish as a key to fully unlocking the rich Hispanic
market. U.S. businesses are spending an estimated $3 billion a
year on advertising in Spanish.

On the political front, Hispanics account for around 10
percent of the electorate and many politicians try to win their
vote by speaking, or at least attempting to speak, Spanish to
them. President George W. Bush even gave his regular Saturday
radio address in both English and Spanish early in his first

(His Spanish address drew mixed reviews. One Spanish
journalist quipped that Bush spoke Spanish "poorly but with
great confidence." The bilingual format did not turn into a
regular feature.)

Promoting Spanish is anathema to many social conservatives
who fear the United States is growing into a country with two
dominant languages and two cultures. Overall, more than 300
languages are spoken in the United States, but traditionally,
English has served as the linguistic glue that bound diverse
communities together.

"The U.S. has come together with one language -- English --
which has been instrumental in the process of assimilation,"
said Rob Toonkel of U.S. English, Inc., a lobby group which has
campaigned for legislation to make English the official
language since 1981.


The extent to which Spanish has become part of the
increasingly emotional debate over immigration in the United
States was thrown into sharp focus in a string of mass
demonstrations that began on March 10 and turned Latin American
immigrants from a barely visible minority --- "hiding in the
shadows of our cities" as President Bush put it -- into a vocal
and very visible force.

Speeches, banners and chants in Spanish poured fuel on
anti-immigrant fires and the "blogosphere," often a good
real-time gauge of popular sentiment, came alive with exchanges
on the wisdom of using a language not understood by most
Americans to ask for the right to stay in the country under
lenient immigration laws.

"There's a great place to speak Spanish," commented one
blog participant. "It's south of our border and it's called
Mexico." Others were less polite.

The language debate online and on radio talk shows bubbled
up to the highest level of the U.S. government after a British
music producer last month introduced a Spanish-language version
of the U.S. national anthem. As with most other aspects of the
immigration debate, the reaction at the top laid bare

Bush said the hymn "ought to be sung in English." A few
days later, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, made
clear she had no problem with a Spanish-language version.

"I've heard the national anthem done in rap versions,
country versions, classical versions. The individualization of
the American national anthem is quite under way."


In essence, many of those who are concerned over the
relentless spread of Spanish argue that through most of U.S.
history, it was the newcomers who had to learn English to
become part of the United States while now English-speaking
Americans were expected to learn Spanish.

That case was laid out by Harvard professor Samuel
Huntington in a controversial 2004 book, "Who are we?," that
provides the intellectual underpinning for many of the
arguments in the present debate.

If Spanish continued to spread, he said, "bilingual
candidates for president and appointed national offices could
have an advantage over English-only speakers. "English speakers
lacking fluency in Spanish are likely to be at a disadvantage
in the competition for jobs, promotions and contracts."

He cited a 2003 survey that showed Spanish-only families in
Miami averaged an annual income of $18,000, English-only
$32,000, and bilingual families $50,376.

"For the first time in American history, increasing numbers
of Americans will not be able to get the jobs or the pay they
would otherwise get because they can speak to their countrymen
only in English."