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To Get Ahead in America, Aprenda Español

New America Media, Commentary, Louis Nevaer Posted: Apr 09, 2007

Editor’s Note: Immigrants to the United States who don’t speak English are keenly aware that acquiring it will increase their viability as an employee. In an ironic twist, NAM writer Louis Nevaer discovered that U.S. Latinos are being pressured by their employers to learn Spanish. Nevaer is the author, most recently, of HR and the New Hispanic Workforce, a book about Hispanics in the labor force.

NEW YORK – The more Latinos embrace speaking English and move away from Spanish, the greater the obstacles they encounter in their careers.

“If my husband speaks (broken) Spanish, it's cute,” says Maria Rivera, a Hispanic from Texas who married a non-Hispanic American. “If I do, it's incorrect.”

Latinos are now held to a higher standard. Many Latin American immigrants think they should be proficient in Spanish as part of their obligation to their Hispanic heritage. Non-Hispanic Americans agree, seeing them as a linguistic bridge between English-speaking American sellers and the new surge of Spanish-speaking consumers.

Waves of Spanish speaking immigrants over the past 20 years have turned the United States into a bilingual consumer economy. American businesses want to increase their market share by courting Hispanic consumers and they desperately need employees fluent in Spanish.

“I got hired because I spoke Spanish and the other applicants didn’t,” a 20-something Latina said on “Sucias” (Dirty Girls), a Yahoo chat room for and about Latinas. “The manager had noticed that he was beginning to get a lot more Spanish customers and hired me.”

Fortune 500 companies presume that Latino employees are, if not fluent, then at least proficient in Spanish. When employers find out this is not the case, problems arise. On Sucias, one Latina woman confided, “my boss told me to go to night school and learn Spanish,” while another admitted that “it would be sooo helpful if I did speak Spanish fluently for my job!”

From Citigroup and hospitals in New York to Archer Daniels Midland and JPMorgan Chase, companies are beginning to pay for “Spanish for Latinos” classes, which is not as easy as it sounds. When the Department of Education launched the Southwest Comprehensive Center, SWCC, a joint program with Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah in 2005, its mission was to help school-aged children in these states. That is when the needs of Latino children learning Spanish became apparent.

“To fully understand the goals and challenges of teaching Spanish to Spanish speakers,” the SWCC declares, “it is important to understand the diverse backgrounds of students who participate in Spanish courses and their motivations for studying a language they already know.” These students are called “heritage speakers.”

Third- or fourth-generation U.S.-born Hispanic students are English-dominant and understand almost all spoken Spanish, but they have limited speaking skills in Spanish and do not read or write it.

First- or second-generation bilinguals possess different degrees of proficiency in English and Spanish. In most cases, these students have received their education in English and have developed few if any literacy skills in Spanish.

Recent immigrants to the United States use Spanish as their dominant language. The amount of formal education they have had in Spanish, and their literacy skills in Spanish, varies.

Those are the latest immigrants to New Orleans. Struggling to recover after Hurricane Katrina, city officials found that the new immigrants often don’t speak fluent Spanish and it is easier to teach hospital, police, fire and civic employees Spanish, than it is to teach these new residents English. Thus New Orleans is scrambling for bilingual employees.

The New York Board of Education seems a bit desperate in its efforts: “Ser bilingüe abre las puertas al éxito” (Being bilingual opens the doors to success) is plastered on the subway cars, part of a recruitment campaign.

Many Latinos have been taught not to speak Spanish. “It's not that I don't want to speak Spanish. It's that my mother was slapped on the hands as a child for not speaking English. So why would she have spoken Spanish to me?” writes KJ in Arizona in a posting on Sucias.

Alberto Rios, a Latino poet from Arizona, made the equation pretty simple when speaking recently on a New York radio station: "Speaking Spanish equals slap on the hand. Slap on the hand equals punishment/bad. Thus speaking Spanish equals bad. The lesson sunk in for my mom and thus I am without Spanish.”

Demographics and purchasing power, however, are quickly changing social dynamics throughout the country. New arrivals from Latin America are settling in communities where Spanish alone can let them achieve the American dream. Corporate America hotly pursues Spanish-speaking customers. And Latinos who were told to assimilate and learn English are being left behind, alienated from the greater community of Hispanics, and told by their employers that their linguistic limitations translate to stymied career advancement.

“I feel bad that I never learned to speak Spanish properly,” says Emilio Bonilla, a middle-aged Dominican financial analyst in New York. “But now I’m beginning to realize that my mother was right when she said that one day I would need Spanish, and I would regret not having learned it.”

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