My father was born in Argentina to Ukrainian parents. When he moved our family to the United States in the 70’s we lived in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago. My father’s parents hadn’t taught him Ukrainian because they wanted him to “fit in” in Argentina but living in the Ukrainian Village and not being able to speak Ukrainian made him feel like a piece of his identity was missing. He, therefore, vowed to make sure his kids spoke fluent Spanish. For that, my brothers and I will be forever grateful since we’ve all benefitted tremendously in both our business and personal lives from being able to communicate in Spanish.
As a Hispanic market researcher, I’m sometimes asked how long the U.S. Hispanic community will continue to speak Spanish. It’s a fair question since immigrant groups have historically abandoned their language of origin in the second and third generations. Hispanics have been more likely to keep the language in the second generation when compared to other immigrant groups such as Asians but by the third generation only about 17 percent speak it. This leads people to conclude that with time, the language will die out in the U.S. I would support this position if it weren’t for the fact that demographers have been predicting the demise of Spanish in the U.S. since the 1960’s based on this line of reasoning. The predictions didn’t pan out because they were backward looking. They looked at past behavior and assumed the future would be like the past.
The current U.S. Hispanic population may not mirror past behaviors. I believe the U.S. Hispanic market has reached a critical mass where the benefits of speaking Spanish outweigh the perceived disadvantages of the past. The social pressure of the past for Hispanic parents to make sure their kids spoke English is shifting to a pressure to teach them Spanish. I’ve personally experienced this pressure, when my daughter was about a year old I was visiting my mother’s house and an aunt asked why I was speaking to my daughter in English. I confess that I felt a bit shamed at not having started off speaking Spanish to my daughter but something clicked and I decided to start speaking to her in Spanish. My job was made easier in that I could now get the “Latino package” on my cable system and I programmed the DVR to only record Spanish language cartoons. The library and Barnes & Noble near my house also have a terrific selection of Spanish language children’s books which my daughter now reads to me in Spanish. For parents the choice is not longer English or Spanish, bilingualism is becoming the desired outcome.
For market research purposes, segmentation of U.S. Hispanics is moving beyond just language as we’ve come to realize purchase behaviors are influenced by many other factors. Language choice is now one of several variables we look at. As far as the Spanish language is concerned, I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t say how many U.S. Hispanics will choose to speak it in 25 years but I know that it isn’t going anywhere for a while, especially when nosey aunts make you feel bad about not speaking Spanish to their nieces.
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