Discounting Assimilation: Are We Really Becoming A Bilingual Nation?

Oct 21, 2004

By Thomas Tseng

In a piece written last week for the Pacific News Service, Louis E.V. Nevaer, author of “The Rise of the Hispanic Market in the United States,” claims that we are now a bilingual nation. The reason? Well, Mr. Nevaer highlights the soaring, undeniable growth of the Hispanic population for one. The other reason is because he asserts the following:

“Hispanics, without apology, refuse to ‘assimilate,’ if that means giving up their culture and language. When it comes to breakfast cereal, Hispanics collectively indicated their choice would be determined by which one advertises in Spanish: Post Raisin Bran or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Corporate America listened.

“Proof? Pick up the phone and call any customer service number and you are likely to hear, ‘Press one to continue in English,’ followed by ‘Oprima dos para español.’

“Welcome to the United States de América!

“Corporate America cannot be faulted for attempting to secure a competitive edge by reaching out to customers in their language of choice. In a market economy, the seller speaks the language of the buyer, whether the buyer seeks a seat on an airplane for a cross-country flight, or life insurance.”

Unlike our Canadian neighbors, who institutionally recognize both English and French as official languages, Mr. Nevaer correctly points out the reason Spanish has become ubiquitous in the U.S. is largely due to our free market economy. It is capitalism, he states, which drives marketing agencies (like ours) to pursue Spanish-speaking consumers in their preferred language.

As well we should. As should many corporations hoping to capture their share of the Hispanic market. The U.S. now possesses the fourth or fifth largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, and Spanish is easily the second most common language in the country behind English. Nothing else comes remotely close.

But is the United States of America really now a bilingual nation?

By declaring that Hispanics refuse to assimilate, Mr. Nevaer’s argument collapses entirely. First off, he erroneously equates language and culture. While they are often intimately intertwined, losing one’s native language doesn’t necessarily equate with losing one’s native cultural values.

This is, in fact, what typically happens among second generation Hispanics: proficiency in the mother tongue of their parents is one of the first things that diminish with greater acculturation. By the third generation, English predominates — nearly 80 percent can only speak English and nothing else according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Among these latter generation Hispanics, cultural attributes define them far more than language.

Furthermore, Nevaer adopts a rigid, deterministic notion of culture — that culture is a fixed and static thing, that it’s not malleable. Here, he makes the same mistaken assumptions recently made by California’s own population forecasters and statisticians.

To illustrate, the State of California recently had to scale back its growth projections significantly due to the fact it had grossly miscalculated fertility rates among Latina mothers. As the state with the largest Latino population, California’s surging population over the past several decades can be directly tied to both high Hispanic immigration and birthrates.

But the state’s bean counters had wrongly assumed that high birthrates among this population would continue to hold true across generations. They didn’t. Consequently, fertility rates dropped dramatically among Latinas over the past decade-and-a-half — from 3.4 babies in 1990 to 2.6 babies today. These changes in fertility rates are a direct result of acculturation — as Hispanic women acculturated, they began to adopt upwardly mobile lifestyles that reflected their increasingly mainstream sensibilities. Having a lot of babies didn’t fit into their new way of life.

Moderator’s Comments: Are we truly becoming ‘America the Bilingual’? Is that even the point for marketers?

The State of California example holds many lessons for Hispanic marketers. There is an inherent danger in tightly clinging to rigid preconceptions about
the Hispanic market. What may be partially true today may become an obsolete notion tomorrow.

What Mr. Nevaer, along with many other marketers, don’t quite grasp is that this market is a continually moving target. As they acculturate, they are moving
away from Spanish. Moreover, this population has reached a tipping point such that a greater proportion of Hispanic growth now originates from the ranks of the U.S. born (roughly
60 percent of the Latino population now) far more than it does from immigration. Add it all up and it means there will be a future wave of Latinos who probably won’t watch telenovelas,
will cook fewer meals from scratch, and will only passably speak Spanish if at all.

What will marketers do then?
Thomas Tseng – Moderator

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