Good news for those of us who want increasingly closer U.S. ties with Spanish-speaking countries: a new study shows that more U.S. college students are enrolling in Spanish classes than in any other foreign language.
The survey released by the Modern Language Association of America shows that despite the anti-immigration hysteria of recent years and a steep increase in the number of college kids who are taking Arabic, Chinese and Korean classes, Spanish continues to be by far the most-studied language in U.S. colleges.
About 850,000 college students are taking Spanish, followed by 210,000 enrolled in French, 198,000 in German, 92,000 in American Sign Language, 74,000 in Japanese and 61,000 in Chinese.
"Spanish continues to be the No. 1 language," MLA executive director Rosemary G. Feal said. "Almost 50 percent of all college enrollments in foreign languages are in Spanish."
Feal says she expects this trend to hold up in the foreseeable future, for reasons that go beyond the huge U.S. Hispanic population. Students of all ethnic groups see Spanish as a language that opens up job opportunities. And, at a time of budget cuts, U.S. colleges are more likely to eliminate other less attended language classes, she said.
"Colleges are shrinking programs that don't have large numbers of majors, such as German or Italian, but they are not shrinking Spanish," she said.
About 34 million people in the United States speak Spanish, including about 3.5 million Americans who are not of Hispanic descent, according to U.S. Census data. This makes the United States one of the largest Spanish-speaking countries in the world.
But will Spanish continue to thrive? Will new generations of Hispanics maintain the language at a time when several U.S. states are considering Arizona-style anti-immigration measures, and when the U.S. economic downturn is slowing down the flow of Latin American immigrants?
Interestingly, a recent poll shows that young Hispanics are becoming more bilingual. The nationwide survey of young U.S. citizens by Bendixen and Amandi, a Miami-based opinion research firm, shows that 89 percent of foreign-born Hispanics and 59 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics speak both English and Spanish.
That's a new phenomenon, says Fernand Amandi, the polling firm's managing partner. Unlike a few decades ago, when Mexican parents - especially in Western states - used to ask their children not to speak Spanish because they thought it would hurt their chances to advance in the United States, nowadays Mexican immigrants want their children to be bilingual, he said.
In addition to seeing bilingualism as a competitive advantage to get a job, technology is keeping immigrants and their children closer to their native countries. "Technology has been the key factor: now, thanks to the Internet, America is becoming an even more multiethnic society," he said.
My opinion: I agree. Hispanics are already the largest U.S. minority group, and technology will help keep Spanish alive in this country regardless of whether immigration from Latin America rises or falls in the near future.
In Miami, many of my friends wake up in the morning reading Colombian, Venezuelan or Argentine newspapers on the Internet, go to work listening to their native countries' radio stations on their iPhones, and watch South American, Central American or Mexican soccer games at night on cable or satellite television. You don't need to go to Latin America anymore. It's coming to you.
And contrary to what Hispanic-phobic anti-immigration advocates say, staying tuned with their native countries or the country of their ancestors doesn't turn U.S. Hispanics into a threat to U.S. culture. Even if some immigrants don't speak English, their children certainly do.
In a highly-competitive global economy, speaking more than one language is a big asset. China has understood this so well that it recently ordered mandatory English classes in all public elementary schools.
So the more U.S. college youths study español - the language spoken by U.S. neighbors and some of the world's most promising export markets - the better it will be not just for them, but for the country as a whole.