The Media, Marketing and Critical Mass: Portents of Linguistic Maintenance

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ABSTRACT. Sociolinguistic studies paint a grim picture of the probability of long-term survival for Spanish in the United States. At the same time, market research suggests that commercial ventures, particularly the Spanish-language media, may be creating conditions that reflect a mitigation in patterns of loss. Specifically, the sheer demographic and economic presence of Latinos in the United States is fueling an unprecedented demand for goods and services in Spanish. The numerous business ventures that have arisen to meet this demand have established Spanish as a language of tremendous economic value in the U.S. In the process, perceptions of this language have grown more positive and interest levels in learning Spanish have increased significantly. This state of affairs is creating a social context that is consistent with the predictions of the CATHERINE WHEEL MODEL (Strubell 1998, 2001). According to this model, the synergistic interaction of social and economic conditions can result in a powerful self-priming mechanism of language maintenance. *

INTRODUCTION. Sociolinguistic research paints a grim picture of the probability of long-term survival of Spanish in the United States. This body of investigation identifies a number of existing conditions that will not sustain the long term-use of Spanish in the United States. These include the shift to English among successive generations of U.S. Hispanics (1) (Hernandez Chavez 1993, Rivera-Mills 2001), the association between low socioeconomic status and the use of Spanish in the U.S. (Bills 1997, Zentella 1997), the correlation between the use of English and rising income and educational levels among U.S. Hispanics (Howell 1997), and the decline in use of Spanish in the home environment (Zentella 1990, 1997, Hernandez Chavez 1993). These studies leave no doubt that with each successive generation in the U.S., there is a steady and inexorable decline in the Spanish-language skills of Latinos.

Linguists are well aware of the crucial importance of the foreign-born in preserving minority languages. Stevens (1992:182) notes,

   Because immigrants are much more likely to have facility in and to
   rely on a minority language as a means of communication than are
   native born Americans, heavy immigration can tilt the nativity
   composition of minority language groups such that more group members
   speak the minority language.

Research on U.S. Spanish confirms the crucial role that immigrants play in preserving this language. Regarding Spanish in Miami-Dade, Florida, Lynch (2000:279) argues that

   ... the continuous influx of Spanish monolingual immigrants is quite
   significant. First, it points to the continued use of Spanish at the
   societal level. Second, in a city where new immigration is at a high
   rate and where Hispanics are the demographic majority, there is a
   high probability that already established immigrants and their
   offspring will have intimate social contact with recently arrived
   Spanish monolinguals.

Likewise, in their study of New York City Spanish, Garcia et al. (2001:55) note:

   Whereas in 1970 almost 60% of the U.S. Puerto Rican population had
   been born in Puerto Rico, in 1990 only 40% remained island born.
   Because most of the other Latino groups are more recent arrivals,
   they are generally Spanish speakers, helping to pull the Spanish of
   Puerto Ricans as they communicate with each other.

Similar conclusions hold in the Southwest:

   These findings [of the study] converge on the conclusion that
   maintenance of Spanish in the Southwest, in terms of raw numbers of
   speakers only, is heavily dependent upon a steady transfusion of
   speakers from Mexico to communities in the United States, and offer
   no warrant for the survival of Spanish beyond a point when such
   speakers are no longer available to replace speakers north of the
   border lost through mortality or linguistic assimilation (Hudson,
   Hernandez-Chavez & Bills 1995:182). …