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Sacrament Bee, Washington Bureau

More Speak Spanish In U.S.

A census study finds the most multilingual nation since the early 1900s.

By David Westphal

August 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Sacrament Bee. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- The legion of Americans speaking Spanish at home passed the 25 million mark last year, according to a new Census Bureau report, creating the most multilingual country since the great European migration of the early 1900s.

The census study, due out today, says the number of Spanish speakers grew by more than 50 percent during the 1990s, and they account for one of every 10 people.

With Asian and other foreign languages also growing rapidly, the number of Americans speaking only English fell to 82 percent, the lowest since the 1920s and 1930s, when the country was a blur of second languages such as German, Italian and Polish spoken by recent European immigrants.

University of Michigan demographer William Frey said the existence of nearly 27 million Spanish speakers means some changes. "Spanish is going to keep growing, and that will have major implications for many sectors, including business," he said.

The explosive growth of Spanish was among thousands of findings in the survey, which was administered to 700,000 Americans in an experimental bid to create a new, annual snapshot of economic and cultural life in the United States.

About the study

Based on a survey of 700,000 people, the American Community Survey is being proposed by the Census Bureau as a substitute for the census long form, whose results will be available next year.

The proposal is controversial because it connects with a politically charged fight over census sampling last year. In addition, analysts say they have found apparent discrepancies between this survey and the census results.

Census Bureau officials say the survey will be a major improvement because it will provide data annually that will help guide government and business decisions.

Among other conclusions, the survey found that Americans rapidly were becoming more educated in the 1990s, with the percentage receiving high school and college degrees growing substantially.

It also showed that homeowners benefited enormously from the 1990s real-estate market, with the median home price surpassing $120,000 and easily beating the decade's inflation rate.

The data on Spanish speaking were part of a series of findings documenting the nation's widening diversity in the 1990s. Earlier Census Bureau reports said that the United States' Hispanic population had grown much faster than expected, now accounting for 13 percent of the population.

The new study showed that the nation's foreign-born population increased 54 percent during the decade to surpass 30 million people, with most listing a homeland in Latin America. Close to half of the foreign-born said they had moved here in the last 10 years, the census survey said.

The huge immigration wave has created a much more language-diverse nation. Twenty years ago, 10 percent of Americans spoke a language other than English. By last year, that had increased to 17.6 percent -- and not just because of the big increase in Spanish.

Speakers of Asian languages also grew by more than 50 percent in the '90s, to nearly 7 million people, the census survey said.

All told, nearly 45 million people age 5 and older said they spoke a language other than English.

But Spanish is the overwhelming choice. And unlike the early part of the 20th century, when there was no dominant second language, Spanish is increasingly a part of everyday life for millions of Americans, from Spanish cable TV stations to bilingual ATM machines to touch-tone telephone services.

"Spanish is clearly becoming a bigger part of the culture in the United States," said Eric Rodriguez, director of economic mobility for the National Council of La Raza, a group representing Latino interests.

With a half-trillion dollars in purchasing power, Latinos are an ever more tempting target for American commerce.

The number of Latino newspapers grew more than 50 percent in the 1990s, and Latino magazines nearly doubled, to 350. Major English-language media increasingly are producing Spanish-language versions.

Last spring, ABC's "World News Tonight" became the first network news show to provide a Spanish translation.

Politicians have gotten the message, too. Among them is President Bush, who regularly switches to Spanish to get the attention of increasingly pivotal Latino voters.

But the future of Spanish in the United States is a complex question. For starters, it remains highly localized. California and Texas account for almost half of Spanish-proficient Americans.

By contrast, the percentage of the population not speaking English is in single digits in all but a dozen states.

But the 1990s also saw a Spanish boomlet in many smaller states -- among them North Carolina, where the number of people speaking Spanish more than tripled. Substantial growth also occurred in the nation's midsection, especially in small towns with meatpacking plants.

With two such plants in Storm Lake, Iowa, Principal Mike Hanna is well-acquainted with the Spanish cadence in his high school corridors.

"We do quite a business in Spanish," said Hanna, who runs a school in which nearly four in 10 students are Latino. "There's growing interest among English speakers in taking Spanish, and we've recently added Spanish grammar classes for our Hispanic kids."

However, Hanna said that at the same time, in Storm Lake's lower grades, where the proportion of Latinos sometimes exceeds 50 percent, most students are fluent in English.

That's true of the nation as a whole. The new census survey said almost three-fourths of Americans who speak Spanish say they also speak English "well" or "very well."

"An awful lot of Latinos know Spanish," Rodriguez said, "but it's wrong to assume they don't know English or don't want to learn it and use it."

Much may depend on the course of anti-bilingual efforts such as that of Californian Ron Unz, who has waged successful efforts to require English-only instruction in California and Arizona public schools but has had difficulty lighting a spark nationally.

In any case, demographers say Spanish is likely to continue the rapid growth rate of the 1990s, at least in the short term, because of continued immigration and a higher-than-average birth rate among Latinos.

Erick Cruz, 19, who emigrated from Guatemala with his family when he was 3 and now speaks Spanish and English fluently, said the language would have a rich future in the United States.

"More and more, I've found that English speakers are wanting to speak to me in Spanish," said Cruz, who attends college in Washington, D.C. "My kids will learn it. I think it's here to stay."

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