The Erosion of Español

Enrique Fernandez, Miami Herald, March 2, 2008

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The quandary: Children and grandchildren of the immigrants who made Miami a vibrant international center lack the Spanish skills on which much of the city’s success and identity are built.

“Miami grew as a city along with the Spanish language and bilingualism,” says University of Miami linguist Andrew Lynch. “Bilingualism was the foundation of Miami as a global city.”

That foundation is showing cracks. The question is whether it can be shored up—whether Miami, where fully 69 percent of the population (61 percent in Miami-Dade County) is Hispanic, can remain the robustly bilingual city it has become.

THE FIRST WAVE

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There is no single barometer of bilingual business activity here, but there is every indication that it is vast and vital.

South Florida is home to nearly 1,200 multinational corporations with a combined revenue of more than $200 billion, according to a survey by WorldCity Business Magazine released in January.

Our 20 largest multinationals account for 180,000 local jobs, and employ another 600,000 people abroad, largely in Latin America, said WorldCity president Ken Roberts.

“We have no hard data, but we can extrapolate from anecdotal evidence that when the people here are talking to the people there, they are doing so mostly in Spanish,” Roberts said.

The magazine’s findings echoed a 2004 doctoral thesis at Florida International University by Douglas McGuirk. “Spanish . . . has established itself as the preferred language of trade in Miami-Dade County,” McGuirk wrote. “Miami-Dade is the U.S. leader in Latin American-owned businesses and has more company headquarters that trade with Latin America than other U.S. cities.”

Spanish-language entertainment is a highly visible part of that commerce. Media giants like Univision and Telemundo have major operations here, attracting a celebrity set—Juanes, Alejandro Sanz, Paulina Rubio and Carlos Vives, to drop a few names—that has made Miami the L.A. of Latin America.

Banking is another major component. “The bulk of financial institutions in Miami are from Latin America and from Europe, and many of the European banks are here to do business with Latin America,” notes economist Manuel Lasaga, president of the Coral Gables consulting firm StratInfo.

And yet FIU researcher McGuirk Miami-Dade found that of nearly 250 Miami-Dade businesses that responded to survey questions about language issues, ‘almost a quarter . . . indicated that they needed more bilingual employees, and more than a quarter indicated that their employees’ Spanish language skills needed improvement.”

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Tony Rodríguez, a senior vice president at Smith Barney in Miami, says he realized early in his career that the Spanish he had spoken at home since coming to the United States from Cuba as a teenager was not sufficient for his professional aims. He has never taken classes, but he takes advantage of every opportunity to speak Spanish.

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BILINGUAL EDUCATION

The school system’s Division of Bilingual Education and World Languages estimates that 19,200 students are enrolled in some sort of bilingual program, mostly English-Spanish, at 109 Miami-Dade schools. (By comparison, Broward County has about 240 students at two elementary schools enrolled in what it calls dual education, according to world-languages curriculum specialist Blanca Gerra.)

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Be that as it may, ‘bilingual education programs in the U.S. most definitely fall short of actually producing ‘bilingual’ students, and Miami is no exception.” says UM’s Lynch, who has studied the issue extensively.

The reason, he says, is that U.S. schools focus their efforts primarily on the elementary grades and on bringing foreign-born students into the mainstream, “making English the dominant language, not bilingualism.”

Even when the opportunity exists for high-level Spanish instruction, it’s not always enough. Rigorous International Baccalaureate programs at four Miami-Dade public high schools offer Spanish, and a fully bilingual public high school is scheduled to open in Coral Gables in 2009-10, but students themselves often choose other paths.

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