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Spanish Is Spreading Northward In Florida


November 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Nearly 500 years after the Calusa Indians chased off Juan Ponce de León, the language of La Florida's original conquista is making a vigorous comeback across the peninsula.

As Hispanic immigration blazes a trail northward out of Miami, the Spanish language is making deep inroads into Broward County and the rest of Florida, estimates from a new U.S. Census survey indicate.

Florida ranked fifth among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the proportion of residents reporting that Spanish is their main household tongue, the Census estimates show. About 2.3 million Floridians speak Spanish at home -- more than 800,000 of them outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the survey indicates.

To be sure, Miami-Dade remains by far the county in this state with the largest proportion of Spanish speakers, at 59 percent. Miami-Dade ranked fourth among large U.S. counties.

Fully two-thirds of Miami residents speak Spanish at home, the estimates found, placing the city third in the nation. In both the city and the county, the estimates suggest there has been a small increase in the proportion of Spanish-speakers since the 1990 Census, although the two sets of figures are not directly comparable.

But the growth of Spanish has been especially striking in Broward, which experienced sharp growth in its Hispanic population during the last decade.

The estimates suggest that the proportion of Broward residents whose primary household language is Spanish has doubled since 1990, to 16 percent of the total county population -- placing the county 41st in the nation. The survey found a similar proportion of Spanish-speakers in Orlando's Orange County, which has seen an influx of largely Puerto Rican newcomers.

According to the survey estimates, some 243,000 Broward residents speak mostly Spanish at home. The trend is readily apparent in the county's public schools, where enrollment in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes has more than doubled in less than 10 years, and in its parks and streets, where the sound of Spanish, in a variety of accents from Cuban to Argentine, is a familiar buzz.

``I can tell you, back in 1978 when I started here, there were a little bit over 700 students with limited English proficiency in all of Broward County,'' said Jorge Balmori, a specialist in the Broward schools' multicultural education department. ``Now we have more than 29,000.''

The figures come from a new wide-ranging survey conducted by the Census Bureau after the 2000 Census. Bureau officials hope to eventually conduct the survey, which replicates the detailed questions asked in the decennial Census long form, every year.

Survey results suggest that Florida's Spanish-speakers are by no means monolingual: Two-thirds of them in Miami-Dade, and nearly 75 percent in Florida, say they also speak English well or very well.

That ease with English is strongest among the young. According to the survey estimates, the vast majority of Spanish-speaking Floridians under 18 also speak English well or very well -- about 90 percent in Miami-Dade, in Broward and across Florida.

The explanation is simple, Balmori said: ``You may have a child whose parents are monolingual in Spanish or Creole or whatever, but once the child enters school, English is the dominant language.''

On the other hand, those 65 and older have a hard time learning English. Some 60 percent of that age group in Miami-Dade, and 50 percent across Florida, speak little or no English, the survey found. Working-age adults fall somewhere in between.

Carlos Martínez's family is a perfect example.

The former physical education teacher arrived from Cuba 20 months ago, not speaking more than a few words of English. After slightly more than a year of daily ESOL lessons at Miami-Dade Public Schools' English Center -- a bustling center providing basic education seven days a week to thousands of new adult arrivals -- Martínez, 38, speaks the language well enough to be interviewed in English.

His 6-year-old daughter's English is far superior to his, and she has begun to forget her Spanish, he said: ``She goes to school every day, and she speaks English all the time. She doesn't speak Spanish.''

But his wife, a speech pathologist, has lagged behind because a new job required that she stop attending English lessons temporarily, Martínez said. And his 65-year-old mother, who lives with them, has been unable to learn any English at all.

``She tries, but it's impossible for her,'' Martínez said.

Experts say such mixed results illustrate the benefits and pitfalls of South Florida's widespread use of Spanish.

Bilingualism is critically important to the local economy, which depends in large part on tourism from and trade with Latin America. But the fact that so many people speak Spanish in their daily lives around Miami makes it harder for some new arrivals, even those who diligently attend English classes, to learn the new language fluently.

``We have thousands of students learning English, but the moment they step out of the classroom, they start using their native language,'' said Oswaldo López, chairman of the department of English as a Second Language and foreign languages at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus. ``We're fighting a battle that is very difficult to win.''

His students generally score well on English reading and writing tests but have persistent trouble speaking the language, he said. Spanish-speaking students who do learn to speak English quickly and well tend to be unusually dedicated, López said.

That's the case with Dennys Alfonso, 21, a student at the English Center who in two years has become so proficient he now mans the school's switchboard in the afternoons.

``You have to make a big effort to learn English in Miami,'' Alfonso said. ``You hear Spanish, Spanish, Spanish everywhere.

``But if you want to learn, you learn,'' Alfonso, who left Cuba at age 19, said in English, going on to describe how he is getting his GED, learning to navigate computer systems, and continuing to take English classes.

Those who don't, the experts say, may be able to hold down a job and live comfortably within insular, Spanish-speaking Miami. But their prospects for job advancement are limited, and they can miss out on other advantages.

``Imagine how limited you are when you don't know the language,'' said Rosy Díaz-Duque, principal of the English Center. ``Government is still in English. English is the language of business . . . And if you go into the Internet, so much there is in English.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson and Herald staff writer Jason Grotto contributed to this report.

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