When Americans today use the telephone for business, to make airline reservations or check on their banking account, for example, they often must choose the language they wish to speak. For English, callers are asked to press one .... and two for Spanish.
The choice is a minor inconvenience, which Americans never needed to make until the recent arrival of the Hispanics, whose native Spanish has become widespread in advertising, radio and television broadcasts, and government services.
"Increasingly, America does not speak the same language," says Ms. Toonkel. Robin Toonkel represents U.S. English, an organization that is lobbying Congress to make English the official language of the United States. Ms. Toonkel believes formal recognition is needed to maintain English as the language that has unified Americans throughout the nation's history. She says, "We're not of the same race, we're not of the same religion, we're not of the same nationality, but we can always speak the same language." Ms. Toonkel believes Spanish threatens to divide America into two language groups, each conducting business on its own.
But demographer Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation in Washington rejects such fears. Mr. Longman notes that children of Hispanic immigrants go to English-speaking schools and many aspire to work in professions, such as law or science, that require English. He adds that even Hispanic communities as large as Miami and Dade County, Florida, where Cubans alone number about 650-thousand people, cannot have political influence if their representatives speak only Spanish.
Mr. Longman adds, "I quickly realized that the town's power structure was almost entirely controlled by Anglos, and that Hispanics who were in positions of power were thoroughly plugged into the rest of American culture. They also spoke English and their children spoke English."
The politics of language cuts both ways. On the campaign trail last year, President Bush often spoke Spanish in the Hispanic community. His rival, John Kerry, did the same. Robin Toonkel of U.S. English, however, believes that was improper. She says, "I think they may have been pandering to a certain community, but certainly, if I was Korean, or if I was Vietnamese, I would say, 'Wait a minute! They want their votes; they don't care about me. I'm not that important?"
Linguists say that Spanish has more vitality than other immigrant languages in the United States because nearby Spanish-speaking countries support a steady stream of new speakers. However, Donna Christian, Executive Director of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, says Latino immigrants recognize the importance of English for their children.
According to Ms. Christian, "Parents are very concerned that their children learn English. And often, they will resist programs that might help their children maintain their native language because they are afraid they won't learn English."
Linguists point out that it usually takes two or three generations for an immigrant group to lose its ancestral language. One of the factors contributing to the loss are career opportunities that take individuals out of immigrant communities. Demographer Phillip Longman says another factor is intermarriage. He says, "One of the clear trends among Hispanic-Americans is a very rapid rate of assimilation, intermarriage. And in that sense, Hispanics are not the fastest growing ethnic group in America. White people are, because so many people will become native white in their own estimation and in other people's estimation."
Phillip Longman notes that declining Latin America fertility rates will also decrease pressures on U.S. immigration. He adds, "Mexico for example, because of its very rapid decline in birth rates, is now aging at five times the rate of the United States. Its median age by mid-century will be older than the United States on current trends. So the rate of immigration to the United States from Latin America is likely to taper off."
In addition, Mr. Longman says the Hispanic birth rate in the United States is lower than in Latin America because immigrants realize the high cost of large families in their new country. Thus, he believes it is unlikely that America will become bilingual. And according to the 2000 census, more than 300 languages are spoken in the United States, making it a multi-lingual society that speaks English as its common language.
This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.