Posted by Elena del Valle on March 28, 2005
We have written many times over the years about the size, growth and importance of the Hispanic market ($1 trillion by 2010), and the significance of the Hispanic youth market as a bellwether, leading-edge group. In issue #945 (September 2002), we reported on several sources of research that suggested a trend toward English preference among a large majority of US Hispanic youth in terms of media usage (TV, radio, print media, film and Internet). That trend appears to be accelerating. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY), English remains the language of choice among the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants, despite continuing waves of migration from Latin America. In contrast to concerns from some analysts that English may be losing ground to Spanish in some parts of the United States, the study finds the majority of Hispanic Americans moving steadily toward English monolingualism. Among third-generation Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the US Latino population, 72% speak English exclusively. Further, the study finds that this trend has generally continued among Mexican-Americans, the country¹s largest immigrant group, even during the immigration boom of the 1990s. Even for Hispanics in Los Angeles, a magnet for immigration from Latin America, the pattern of language shifts across generations remains similar to those among Hispanics nationally. The report suggests that many other researchers and analysts have underestimated the pressures of assimilation, and are missing its contemporary signs.
Who We Are, What We Are Becoming
For example, Samuel Huntington, a professor of political science at Harvard, touched off a furor last year by warning in his book, Who Are We: The Challenges to America¹s National Identity, that continuing high levels of Hispanic immigration might ³eventually change America into a country of two languages, two cultures and two peoples.² He is quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying that the SUNY study reflects the experience of current third-generation Hispanics, but does little to predict the experience of future third-generations. Richard Alba, director of the SUNY study, counters that available statistics do not suggest a substantive change in historical patterns. His view is echoed by Ruben Rumbaut of the University of California, co-director of the largest multiyear survey of children of immigrants, whose findings show that continued bilingualism among Hispanics does not occur at the expense of English. Even among Mexican-born young people who came to the US as young children and are living on the border, the UC survey finds, English is still overwhelmingly preferred. What¹s behind this English preference trend? Although not generally understood or appreciated, Hispanic immigration to the US, as well as the share of the US Hispanic population that is foreign-born, both peaked years ago. Hence, the explosive growth of the US Hispanic population in the coming decades will be fueled more by natural increase (native births) than by immigration. This will speed the processes of assimilation, acculturation and English-proficiency. Spanish is certainly not going to fade away in the regions of the country that serve as gateways to new immigrants. The sheer size and continuous nature of Hispanic immigration, the proximity of Latin America to the US, and the availability of Spanish options in media, business and government services guarantee the continued proliferation of Spanish usage in the US. But it¹s not what the kids are doing: young Hispanics may be very proud of their heritage, but English is the language of that powerful machine known as American culture. According to the Latino Intelligence Report, a national survey of Hispanic teens conducted by a division of Creative Artists Agency, Hispanic teens watch more television than their general-market counterparts and cite MTV, Fox and Comedy Central as their favorite TV networks. While only 8% of those surveyed said they speak Spanish better than English or Spanish only, 48% said they speak English and Spanish equally well. Interestingly, however, only 20% of those responding to telephone interviews volunteered to take the survey in Spanish. In other words, Hispanic teens overreport their Spanish-speaking ability.
Growth Strategies Implications
Note well: while assimilation and acculturation to the mainstream is still the paradigm of ethnic minorities in the US, what is different and unique about Hispanics is how much they have changed, and are changing, the mainstream in the process. Every facet of American culture, every aspect of American society, now includes and is transformed by Hispanic influences, and young Hispanics are driving the trend (a very current example would be Spanglish rap songs). Juan Faura, president of Hispanic advertising agency Cultura, agrees that Hispanic culture has evolved into an integral part of the overall pop-culture fabric in the US. He writes in Marketing y Medios that he has come to realize, after many years in the industry, that the Hispanic market is not so much a mix of two cultures as an emerging third culture: This third culture is unique to its time in history. It is a culture rich in tradition and pride, but defined by its own values, values forged over generations in this country. It is defined more by the expectations of the future than the memories of the past. Andrew Erlich of Erlich Transcultural Consultants agrees, writing that bicultural youth are individuating and creating their own new culture, which they express and experience in just about all aspects of their daily lives. Appreciating the experience of bilingual youth, he concludes, will give marketers a window to understanding the Latino market and a key to designing successful strategies for today and tomorrow.