[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: Miami In Need of Better Español

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Miami In Need of Better Español

A topic of particular interest to me...and one that gets constantly misrepresented and misinterpreted in the media and in mainstream thought...is the issue of bilingualism in Hispanic-heavy areas such as Miami. It is because of this that I found today's feature Miami Herald article on the Erosion of Spanish in Miami by Enrique Fernandez particularly interesting.

It's a long article with a few side stories, but please take the time to read it if you have any interest in how assimilation really works in the USA. Forget about everything Tom Tancredo and Newt Gingrich have told you.

I have written posts related to this topic here and here. A common theme in these posts is a strong desire and pull for English to become the dominant language of second and third-generation Hispanics, even in Miami. The common perception is that in Miami, one can get by without speaking a word of English. I suppose that's true in many areas of town, but where does lack of English skills get someone? Not too far. That's why English ends up being the primary language of the younger generation, along with the typical peer pressure and pop culture issues that dominate every group that comes along.

The fact that proper Spanish...spoken, read and written, is faltering somewhat in Miami is not the least bit surprising. This has been known and documented for more than a decade now. This definitely runs counter to xenophobes who claim that Hispanics are a threat to the English language.

The problem is exactly the opposite, and one that will surely surprise many people:

What do we do to make sure we keep up our Spanish fluency in Miami?

That's right, you read that correctly. It's not English that failing in Miami, it's Spanish.

Of course, there are and will likely always be plenty of Spanish speakers in Miami, simply due to our geographic location and business culture. I may be exaggerating the state of Spanish proficiency in Miami, but not by much. The Herald's Fernandez mentions several examples of companies in Miami having problems hiring local fluent Spanish speakers, and having to resort to hiring people from places such as Puerto Rico to find someone who can speak, read and write formal, business Spanish, not just the "kitchen" Spanish spoken at home in informal settings.

Being born in the United States, I can personally relate to the stories in the article. I am proud to say that I can not only speak Spanish, but read and write it as well, but it took effort and practice not to mention insistence by my parents and family. I will never be at the level of someone, say, born, raised and educated in Colombia, but I feel comfortable enough with Spanish that I can talk to someone from any Spanish-speaking country.

Our schools need to do a better job of teaching Spanish. It's that simple. Miami-Dade County only has a virtual handful of bilingual schools, way too few for our area. If we're going to be a truly bilingual community, local officials, high-powered CEOs, and the rest of us need to encourage and support any and all efforts to increase bilingual proficiency. More resources need to be allocated to our schools to ensure that the new generation learns proper Spanish. English won't be a problem, as this post alleges and is supported by the Herald article and others. Our economy depends on Spanish speakers to not only deal with locals, but most importantly to continue our links to the Latin American business community. Otherwise, companies are going to start looking to other cities. Miami can't afford that.

We have a natural edge in the bilingual world. Let's keep it.

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Blogger Ms Calabaza said...

nothing unites or divides a region more than the mother tongue. For that reason I believe English needs to be the language we need to worry about. You are free to teach your children as many languages you wish to, but the schools need to teach English.

8:09 PM, March 03, 2008  
Blogger Robert said...

I don't see bilingualism as something that necessarily divides. Remember, a key component of bilingualism is fluency in English (that's something that ironically ends up forgotten when this issue comes up).

South Florida needs to have bilingual speakers, for the good of our economy. If some people see this as a threat because of their insecurities, then that's just something we'll have to accept. It's not about flaunting your talents to those who can only speak one language, it should be about improving the quality of life of our region. Those who use language as a weapon shouldn't be used as an example of why bilingualism can't work.

9:59 PM, March 03, 2008  
Blogger Ms Calabaza said...

take a look at what's happened with the separatists in Canada? I don't have a problem with learning languages, the more the better as the more culture the more open-minded a society. What I have a problem with is the idea that the government (local, state or fed) should teach another language other than English. I don't see this as an emotional issue just common sense. Yes, Spanglish has marred the Spanish as well as English language in So. Florida but any other language other than English should be taught at home. Replace Spanish and So. Florida from your argument with Arabic, Urdu, etc., and Detroit... or how about Mandarin in San Francisco? While in San Francisco I met young Chinese who spoke Mandarin and could not communicate with the elder Cantonese. This is a huge country with many different cultures and your idea to me is a slippery slope...

10:16 PM, March 03, 2008  
Blogger Robert said...

ms calabaza,

The example of Canada isn't one of inclusion, but exclusion. Francophones are using their knowledge of French and their cultural heritage as a misplaced sense of pride. As I mentioned in my last comment, there will be those that are going to use their language, culture as a "weapon" instead of as an asset to the community. That's life. But for every bad example out there, you have many more good ones. Take a look at Europe. People there don't blink an eye because you speak different languages, and it's the ones who don't want to assimilate (i.e. Muslims regardless of their language skills) who are causing the problems, not the ones who want to learn languages and at the same time maintain a sense of community.

Let me dispel a potential misunderstanding: I am NOT necessarily in favor of government mandating bilingual education in ALL South Florida schools. I never said or implied it in my post. I AM in favor of making effective bilingual learning opportunities more readily available. This means incentives for schools that willingly offer bilingual education, as well as opening up opportunities for private enterprise to provide the same. The benefits of having a plethora of true bilingual speakers in Miami far outweigh the negatives. In the end, knowing 2 or 3 languages, including English, doesn't divide. What DOES divide is a misplaced sense of pride and lack of proper education in all languages and cultures.

10:27 AM, March 04, 2008  
Blogger Jonathan said...

French Canada has a separatist political culture. That's not the case here. I don't see why widespread English/Spanish bilingualism is anything but a big plus for South Florida.

In the bigger picture, I don't think Miami would have been much without Hispanic immigrants, particularly Cubans. The Spanish language is part of the heritage of the people who did so much to build this place. Why pretend otherwise? Should schoolchildren here learn Chinese instead of Spanish? If multi-language proficiency is a good thing, Spanish is the obvious choice as the secondary language to teach here.

11:35 AM, March 04, 2008  
Blogger Hector said...

Very very interesting blog. I totally agree with the author. Miami really needs to take advantage of its unique resource of being a bilingual city. It will only benefit us to teach our children both English and Spanish. Ms Calabaza mentioned that Spanish should only be thought at home, something that I whole heartedly disagree with that. That is the reason that the quality of our Spanish speakers is lacking in Miami. Another thing that I would like to mention is something that I strongly believe in, which is that the government should represent its people, the majority of people in Miami speak Spanish, therefore there should be education in Spanish available as well as in English. Culture is something that is necessary to preserve the people who built Miami and made it what it is today were Spanish speakers, lets honor them by insuring that their descendants are Bilingual. English will never be threatened by Spanish, Spanish is under attack by English. Lets just help it out a little and preserve our unique Miami culture!!!

11:02 PM, April 22, 2008  

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