The Rapid Rise of Spanish Speakers in America: What Does It Mean for Government?

Is it time to swap “De Muchos, Uno” for “E Pluribus Unum”?

It’s not every day that a gringo from Virginia steps to the Senate floor to give a speech in Spanish, but that’s just what happened yesterday when Senator Tim Kaine delivered his remarks on immigration reform.

In addition to that small, but important piece of evidence, there are several other key data points signaling the rise of influence among Spanish speakers. For instance, a Pew report in November 2012 indicates that the Hispanic electorate will double by 2030. Another study from Pew found that 68 percent of Latinos “consider it very important for future generations to be able to speak Spanish” and that “third-generation Latinos are equally as likely as their second-generation counterparts to state that retaining the ability to use Spanish is very or somewhat important.” Moreover, a couple years ago I attended a presentation by a University of North Carolina statistician who had analyzed Census data and projected that 40% of America will be Hispanic by 2050. Here’s a study that uses 30% as their figure.

It’s highly unlikely that this trend will change, which means it’s increasingly important for government agencies to consider how they will deliver services and information in both English and Spanish. One way that the General Services Administration (GSA) is approaching this trend is by hosting GobiernoUSA.gov, a Spanish version of the government information clearinghouse at USA.gov that extends to a mobile version as well as a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Moreover, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently unveiled consumerfinance.gov/es, where citizens “can find answers, in plain-language Spanish, to consumers’ most common questions.” CFPB notes that, “It’s also our first responsive site – it works beautifully on mobile devices as well as on desktops – in response to research that shows two-thirds of Latinos who are online tend to access the Internet from a mobile device.”

As Spanish becomes more and more prominent, what is your agency planning or implementing as it delivers services and information to an increasingly Spanish-speaking population?

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Henry Brown

In my last life, there was considerable concern about the ability of background investigators being able to gather enough good information from non-english speaking communities, not only Spanish but Chinese, and German as well. I am certain that there might have been additional language communities but … . Where there were significant chance for the investigators to have to deal with these communities every effort was made to get an investigator with the appropriate language skills working in the office. If this was not possible, a list was maintained which within a reasonable amount of time could get an investigator there from another area/office.

Samantha Holquist

It was the first time a Senator has ever delivered a speech in a foreign language! Comments have been made before, but no one has ever delivered a full speech. Check out more here!

Peter Sperry

During the colonial period, there were actually more German than English speakers in many parts of America and the founding fathers gave serious consideration to having two official languages. Well into the early 20th century, large minorities in eastern cities could not speak English and community services were often provided in Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish, Italian etc. The inability to speak the dominant language effectively segregated early immigrants and kept them from making progress towards assimilation. Providing government services in their native languages was often viewed as a subtle but effective way to keep them segregated and limit their ability to compete with established populations who spoke English. All in the name of respecting their native heritage of course. And Tammany Hall was always ready to translate ballots or see they were provided in the appropriate language, albeit with a few candidates missing. Teddy Roosevelt and other reformers recognized this bigotry for what it was and proclaimed “there are no hyphenated Americans!”. They established free private schools to teach English, set a goal that all second generation immigrants should speak, read and write English as well as any native born American and freed millions of people from second class citizenship based on language.

Today many people want the nation to embrace bilingualism. Some of them are well meaning. Some are not. Almost all are willing to assist non English speakers in their efforts to deal with government, particularly efforts to vote.

Almost all immigrants embrace and honor their cultural heritage whether it derives from Scandinavia, the British Isles, the Mediterranean, east Asia or Latin America. Most of the smart ones learn English anyway. The really smart ones are fully assimilated within 3 generations.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Henry – You’re making me wonder the total number of staffing in the U.S. government that is “Spanish-ready.” How many personnel are in functional roles where speaking Spanish is a requirement? It might be interesting to do a search on USAJOBS to see how many open vacancies have that Spanish fluency required.

David B. Grinberg

1) Spanish-language websites.

2) Spanish social media accounts, like Twitter.

3) Bi-lingual HQ staff for customer service/engagement and public affairs (Hispanic media, etc.)

4) More documents in Spanish.

5) Bilingual field staff, especially in states/regions with high Hispanic populations.

Henry Brown

@ Andrew: Just did a rather broad search on USAJobs, on “spanish fluency” number returned was less than 5, tried to broaden it a little to “language fluency” less than 15 hits; tried to broaden it and searched on “language” still IMO very small numbers(less than 50). Not sure why I wouldn’t have gotten a significant number of “hits” when looking for ICE posistions, especially on the Mexican border.

I know that there was NO requirement to be fluent in any language other than english when 2 agencies ago (10+ years ago), when the agency was advertising extensively for investigators.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Peter – I appreciate your thoughtful, historical perspective. You make a strong case for the notion that the most successful immigrants are those who assimilate into the culture where they are establishing themselves. However, I think those examples break down a bit as a comparison to what will happen in America with the increase in Hispanics. While I don’t have historical data (maybe you do), my hunch is that that the phenomena that we are about to see will be unprecedented due to the proportion of the population that Hispanics will represent.

Another difference here is that most of these immigrants’ original countries are not separated be an ocean. The ease with which they will be able to travel back and forth between here and there will more readily facilitate an ability to stay connected to their cultural roots, making it less likely that assimilation will be necessary.

In short, I think it’s inevitable that North America will become more like Latin America versus newcomers from those places taking on what has heretofore been considered “American.” It will be fascinating to watch this phenomena unfold.