Hispanic marketers and researchers often discuss the growth of the U.S. Hispanic audience and their acculturation process into American society. But rarely do we analyze the opposite side of the same coin. How do Caucasians learn the Spanish language, acquire information about Latinos’ native countries in Latin America, and “acculturate” to a more Hispanic America?

As the Hispanic population grows, speaking Spanish becomes more useful than ever before. Many American students choose to study Spanish because of its usefulness here in the U.S. or perhaps because they plan to visit Mexico at some point. The popularity and practicality of studying Spanish becomes evident in the numbers. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ (ACTFL) 2010 annual report, 61% of high school students study Spanish as their primary foreign language. In contrast, 21.7% study French and less than 17% study all of the other languages combined. This infers that the general population wants to study a language that will provide them with a useful skill, something that they can use in their professional or even daily life. 37.6% of student respondents want to “become fluent in the language” that they study while 37% want to “broaden my career choices.”

Today, Spanish-language TV stations in U.S. oftentimes surpass viewer ratings of English-language stations, especially in the 18-34 age group. Might some of these viewers be high school and college students practicing their Spanish? This would make for an interesting research study.

On an institutional level, some universities like SUNY Albany and American University have cut their language programs in recent years. Others have decreased their language requirements assuming “everyone will speak English in this global society.”

This is a gigantic mistake. If we want to prepare ourselves for a majority-minority America when Hispanics and other minorities become the majority in 2050, we definitely need to grow our “multicultural intelligence,” to use the term coined by author David Morse. One key way to do that is by having young Americans study a foreign language.

If we analyze the influence of Spanish language teachers among students, we see that they can provide a crucial role in fostering the “multicultural intelligence” of the U.S. In its 2008 report, ACTFL asked teachers about the “main reason why they chose to teach a particular language.” 60% were “interested in it,” 18% said they were “native speakers,” and 10% said it was because of their “family background.” And according to its 2010 study, over 70% of language educators have traveled to “the country speaking the language they teach” within the past 5 years and almost 35% have done so within the last year. Furthermore, 69% of educators travel with family and friends to the countries of the languages they teach, while just over 25% travel with their students. In other words, they bring cultural knowledge into the classroom about native Spanish-speaking countries.

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes “mavens” as people who accumulate knowledge, especially about a specific area of interest and want to share it with others. Mavens serve as key influencers that make new trends reach a tipping point or critical mass. Clearly, the majority of U.S. language teachers behave as “mavens,” regularly accumulating knowledge about the languages and cultures that they teach and bring these insights back to their students.

We all know that parents serve as a child’s most influential teacher. In the mid-1960’s, my parents met in their Spanish class at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They began dating, got married a few years later and honeymooned in Mexico. Their love of the Spanish language continued on with their children. My brother, sister and I all studied Spanish in middle and high school. During college, we studied abroad in Latin America or Spain. All three of us spent a summer volunteering at the Centro del Muchacho Trabajador family center in Ecuador.

In conclusion, if we encourage an even greater number of students to study Spanish, or any other foreign language for that matter, can this lead young Americans to better appreciate or even enjoy the diversity of our nation? What do you think?

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