It takes just a generation or two
In 2004 THE historian Samuel Huntington published a bleak and at times nasty book about Mexican immigrants to America, fretting about their numbers, their Catholic values, their fertility and the threat they posed to the English language. “There is no Americano Dream,” he declared. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”
The law having no jurisdiction over dreams, those who share Huntington’s views have busied themselves over the years banning such things as government leaflets in foreign languages, bilingual ballot papers and dual-language schooling. Since the late 1980s more than a dozen states have passed “English-only” laws. In 2009 the city of Nashville, breaking with its laid-back, guitar-twanging image, staged an “English-only” referendum. The proposal was rejected by 57% to 43%. One puzzle of the campaign was hearing long-time Nashville residents claiming that their ancestors had learned English “instantly”, says Renata Soto of Conexión Américas, a Latino business incubator and advice centre. If that were so, she notes drily, it seems odd that 19th-century Nashville supported German-language newspapers for years.
Nashville’s handsome downtown library proves her right: the archived issues of the Tennessee Staatszeitung are enough to give a nativist palpitations. The German-language paper demanded police jobs for Germans and classes to teach German children their ancestral tongue. In April 1866 it called for “as many Germans as possible” to emigrate to Tennessee.
Today, Germanic chest-beating is forgotten and Latinos are quietly following the same path as immigrants down the ages. New arrivals often have patchy English and stick to the Hispanic quarter around Nashville’s Nolensville Pike. After a while, however, they feel the need to become bilingual: there is a waiting list for Conexión’s English classes for adults. In national polls for the Pew Hispanic Centre, more than 90% of second- and third-generation Latinos say they are confident in English.
Across America, about 23m Hispanic consumers are mostly Spanish-speaking, according to Nielsen, a research firm, and roughly 22m are English-dominant. Over the past decade the fastest growth has been among those who use both languages equally, now numbering 4.5m. Hispanic marketing gurus explain that bilingualism is “cool”.
Read more on The Economist’s special report on Hispanics: