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Spanish works fine, but learning English leads to real power

Updated: July 17, 2011 2:24AM

Not long ago, I was at a stoplight next to a bus that sported a full-length bank ad. You know the type: promises of great service, low rates if you become a customer.

As I waited, another bus rolled through the intersection. On the length of this one was an ad for a company looking for employees.

Both ads were in Spanish.

Not only totally in Espanol, but deep in the heart of suburbia. Guess all those news reports about Latinos moving to the ’burbs are right!

Oh boy, at that moment did I wish I was the type who always has her cell phone camera ready to snap away. That was a scene I would have loved to share with my e-“friends.”

I have a loyal band of emailers who love to rag me about Latinos. (It’s so sweet, some write almost daily, although their bosses probably wish they were working instead of corresponding with a journalist.) The one complaint I hear over and over is how “everything” is in Spanish, something they attribute to Latinos not learning English. And then they tell me that when their grandparents came here, they learned English.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Having grown up in a neighborhood with a good number of non-Latino immigrants, I remember things a little differently, including that that generation learned only enough English to get by.

The children and grandchildren embraced English — sadly, often discarding their family’s native tongue — but for the old grannies and granddads, English was difficult, so they never mastered it or adopted it as their first language.

Just like those immigrants before them, Latinos are expected in three generations to be English speakers. There are studies that show that is what happens with assimilation. But until immigrants do learn English, plenty of businesses offer services in Spanish (just as they readily resort to Polish, Russian or Chinese in other communities).

This doesn’t happen because Latinos who can’t speak English insist that banks, stores, hospitals use Spanish. And don’t think businesses serve customers in Spanish out of the kindness of someone’s heart.

Those bus ads and all other signs and service in Spanish are there because businesses know that Latinos are our country’s fastest-growing minority. Latinos have $1 trillion in purchasing power; that’s some kind of muscle in the marketplace. The business world isn’t going to let a little thing like language stand between them and a paying customer. If Latinos are spending, companies are more than happy to serve them in Spanish.

All those “English-only” efforts? You’ll notice the business world is silent on that front.

And if it temporarily makes life easier for people, serving them in Spanish doesn’t bother me. But the emphasis is on “temporarily.” I don’t want non-English-speaking Latinos to start thinking learning English is no longer a must, but not for the reasons my emailers give.

People who can’t speak the dominant language of a city or a country are left out of the loop. Latinos would be at a disadvantage in the work and political worlds.

Yes, Latinos are our nation’s fastest-growing minority. But we must be well-educated and know English or it won’t matter much that there are more of us.

Right now we have spending power. Education and a command of English will give us real power.

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