New York City’s Immigrants Speak English
But Univision and Its Allies Cling to a Misleading Stereotype of American Hispanics
June 4, 2002
By Tamar Jacoby
Most of New York’s new immigrants speak English — right or wrong?
In the five boroughs, as elsewhere in America, it’s easy to surmise that they don’t – especially when you see the lengths that politicians, advertisers, and even the government are willing to go to try to reach new Americans in their native tongues.
Consider the big business being done this month in connection with World Cup soccer. Most U.S. television networks are taking a pass on the series, which kicked off Friday in Seoul: remembering mediocre ratings the last time around, no English-language channel is bothering to air all or even most of the matches. But the picture looks very different over at Univision, the country’s premier Spanish-language network, where the soccer series is the event of the year. The network has snapped up rights to all 64 games and convinced corporate America to buy in big. Keen to reach Hispanic customers — a pool of 40 million and growing — companies like Coca-Cola, Wendy’s, Sears Roebuck and others are spending some $50 million on Spanish-language ads to air during the matches. Some firms, like Hyundai Motors, are blowing as much as half their yearly Hispanic advertising budgets this month alone.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing. A lot of Hispanics will watch the series whatever language it’s broadcast in — and Coke and Wendy’s and the others will probably get their money’s worth. But it’s not true, as Univision claims, that Spanish-language TV is the best or only way to reach U.S. Latinos. On the contrary, most of them speak English well or very well. What’s more, in contrast to what a growing chorus of Spanish-language marketers will tell you, much of the Hispanic population prefers English and English-language media. Yet thanks in part to companies such as Univision — which, like the marketers, has a stake in encouraging companies to spend on Spanish-language advertising — the myth that immigrants don’t speak English is taking root across the land.
Corporate American is hardly alone in buying into the myth. Last month, as reported in The Sun, Governor Pataki launched a Spanish-language “I love New York” TV spot meant to raise the governor’s profile among Hispanics in the run-up to the November election — and he is only doing what other local politicians in heavily Hispanic states from here to California are doing. The Republican National Committee is developing a Spanish-language public-affairs TV program. The NFL is considering a major push to broadcast in Spanish. And companies from Burger King to Citibank are scrambling to get on the bandwagon, whether with Spanish-language menus, multilingual ATMs or other marketing. Then there’s the federal government — the 800-pound gorilla in this as in most things — which is moving to require that every federal agency and every recipient of federal funding provide services in any and every language demanded by constituents.
Of course, marketers will be marketers, politicians will be politicians — and it’s hard to fault them for reaching for an advantage, however slim. Even Latino voters who don’t speak Spanish are complimented by the symbolism of a Spanish-language commercial. But Univision and its allies are encouraging — often deliberately — a very misleading stereotype of U.S. Hispanics. No wonder anti-immigrant groups are clamoring for laws to make English the official language, insisting, as the national organization, English First, does in a recent fundraising letter, that “the time to act is now, before this country is so divided by language that it may be forced to break apart.”
The reality behind the myth is actually far less apocalyptic. Today, in contrast to the past, most newcomers (60% in one recent decade) arrive with a working knowledge of English — it’s hard to avoid in the world today, even in an impoverished village in rural Mexico. Now as in the past, adult migrants often have trouble becoming fluent: they don’t have time or money for classes, it’s hard to learn a new language as an adult. But their children invariably do. Despite the travesty that is bilingual education, few if any young people, wherever they’re from, can resist the lure of American pop culture. If you have any doubts, just watch some TV — some standard network fare, then a Mexican-made Univision telenovela — and try to imagine which is more appealing to a Latino teenager in the U.S. But you don’t have to trust your own judgment: study after study bears this out.
Honest surveys of TV-viewing make a mockery of Univision’s inflated claims. The network likes to boast, for example, that on any given night 75% of Hispanic households are watching its programs. In fact, that’s 75% of Hispanic households classified by Nielsen Media Research as “Spanish-dominant” – and according to Nielsen itself, the Spanish-dominant account for only about third of all Hispanic families. Even within such households, Nielsen finds, 60% of the children and teens watch primarily English-language TV. And according to one of the largest and most comprehensive national surveys of Latinos, conducted in 1999 by The Washington Post, only 5% of the second generation watches “only Spanish” or “more Spanish” television.
Couch-potato proficiency is far from fluency, of course, but the good news doesn’t end with TV ratings. Consider the Hispanic population in the Bronx. According to the Census Bureau, 30% of Bronx residents live in households that are Spanish-speaking. That sounds like a high number — much higher certainly that the national figure of 10%. But in fact it too is highly misleading: at the Census Bureau, even one Spanish speaker — and in many cases, it’s an elderly grandparent — is enough to get a family classified as Spanish-speaking. What’s more, according to the bureau’s latest community survey in the Bronx, a full 92% of the 5 to 17 year olds in even these households speak English well or very well. (So, by the way, do 70% of the working-age adults.) Even more dramatic, consider the most important academic study of the second generation — a long-term survey of high school students in Miami and San Diego. It found that by the time they’re ready to graduate, 98% of today’s immigrants’ children speak and understand English well or very well, and nine out of 10 prefer it, even if they don’t speak it better than their native tongues.
So why do we seem to hear so much Spanish around us in New York and elsewhere? For one thing, because it stands out — and to the degree the unknown is threatening, this is always going to be unnerving for a few people. But the truth is that most immigrants speaking another language are new arrivals. And though new arrivals keep coming, particularly new arrivals from Spanish-speaking countries, by now the English-fluent Latino second and third generations far outstrip the newcomers numerically — a disproportion that will only grow, dramatically, in the decades to come.
Virtually no one who studies linguistic use has any doubt about the long run: today as in the past, the United States is going to prove a “language graveyard” — and companies, like Univision, that cater to what’s known as an “in-language” audience will increasingly serve only the poorest and least educated members of their group.
If Coke and Wendy’s don’t know this yet, they’ll find out soon enough. But let’s not the rest of us go on mistaking the part for the whole — and let’s stop tearing out our hair in needless despair about the linguistic fragmentation of America. No matter what you hear in the commercials on the World Cup matches, that just isn’t happening.
Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2002 New York Sun
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