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Posted on: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 16:12 CST

Americans not waiting for mañana to learn Spanish

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - America's reputation as an English-only nation is fading, and not just because cartoon character Bart Simpson says "Ay, Caramba!" and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recycles his old movie line "Hasta la vista, baby."

Across the United States more people are mixing Spanish into conversation, and American parents are fighting to place their kids in bilingual schools.

In Washington, parents used to camp out on the sidewalk for days to enroll their children in Oyster Elementary, the capital's only public bilingual school. After changing to a lottery for admission, it has a waiting list of 120 kids for each grade.

"We have children from poor families sitting next to congressmen's children. That's the beauty of the program," said Marta Guzman, principal of the school, considered a model for teaching Americans Spanish and helping immigrants learn English.

Now 11.5 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 30 million people, speak Spanish at home, U.S. Census data show, and Hispanic immigrants are feeling at home in their adopted country.

"My mother doesn't know more than three words of English, but when she comes to visit she's happy," said Mexican-born Susana Johnston of Hoboken, New Jersey. "There are a lot Latinos but also a lot of Americans who speak Spanish."


New Yorkers call their corner store a "bodega." Border towns know that a transnational factory is a "maquiladora." Small children learn from cartoon character Dora the Explorer, who uses Spanish in her adventures.

Encarta Webster's Dictionary of the English Language lists some 50 words that its general editor calls "post-NAFTA," referring to 1994's North American Free Trade Agreement linking the economies of Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Among them are Amexica, a blend of America and Mexico referring to the U.S.-Mexican border region, and Amexican, meaning English as influenced by Latin America.

There are English terms like bridge town -- a pair of cities separated by the river marking the U.S.-Mexican border -- and Spanish ones like matricula consular -- an identity card issued by Mexican consulates to Mexican nationals in the United States.

Anne Soukhanov, Encarta's U.S. general editor, said Spanish some day may surpass French as a source of words in English.

"I don't see why not. I can't predict how long it will take, but I will say that the influence of Spanish is continuing as we sit here," Soukhanov said.

Some defenders of Spanish in the United States resent the way Schwarzenegger uses the language. Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College in California, calls it "mock Spanish" and suggests the country has a double standard when it comes to speaking Spanish.

"It's perfectly fine for white people to say 'Hasta la vista, baby' to each other, but there is no tolerance for Spanish speaking co-workers who say 'hasta la vista' to each other," Fought said. "There's a lot of negativity attached to the use of Spanish. It's associated with poverty and a lack of education."

That backlash seems to have faded in the small town of St. Helena in California's wine-producing Napa Valley, a magnet for Mexican farm workers. The elementary school offers "dual immersion" schooling in English and Spanish.

"We've seen an upswing in the number of English-only parents who value giving their child a second language," principal Robin McCrae said. "There are a number who don't want their children just to be citizens of a small town, but citizens of the world."


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