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Language of choice
As US changes, many trying to learn Spanish
Boston Globe Staff, 1/27/2003
By Cindy Rodriguez,

Bill Pyron may not understand the sexual innuendos, or the rantings of the jilted lover who vows
revenge at a rapid-fire pace. But it doesn't matter. These nights, after work, Pyron plops himself in
front of his television, absorbing whatever he can from the Spanish soap operas flashing before him.

During the week, he reads El Pais, El Mundo, El Universal, and other online newspapers from Latin
America and Spain. He rents foreign films such as ''Y Tu Mama Tambien.'' There are, too, the
weekly Spanish classes, where he and other professionals struggle to roll their R's, navigating their
way to a new language.

In a country known for its devotion to English, Pyron, a Framingham lawyer, is part of an
unprecedented rush to learn Spanish, the second most spoken language in the United States. From
college students who see it as the language of the future to mid-career executives who need to
speak Spanish right now, more Americans are learning it than the numbers studying all other foreign
languages combined.

''Spanish is transforming this country,'' said Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the Modern
Language Association, an international organization based in New York. ''You can't even call it a
foreign language. It is a language of the United States.''

The surprise of the 2000 Census was the larger-than-expected wave of Latin American
immigration, which made Latinos the largest minority group in 23 of the 50 states.

The size of the influx jolted even demographers. Now entrepreneurs and company executives are
discovering the road to financial growth is marketing en espanol.

''A lot of American companies are showing flat growth,'' said Emilio Coronado, Verizon's Hispanic
Marketing Group manager. ''If they want to grow, you have to acknowledge this huge market.''

But the stampede to learn Spanish cuts across age and demographic groups: Four out of every six
high school students studying a foreign language are taking Spanish, according to the American
Council on Teaching Foreign Languages. About 700,000 college students take Spanish each year,
compared with 500,000 students studying all other languages.

Adult continuing education classes also have seen Spanish classes jump; Command Spanish, the
nation's largest Spanish-language school, has doubled its enrollment for five consecutive years, to
40,000 graduates in 2002. Meanwhile, Spanish-language schools are popping up in places such as
Marion City, Iowa, population 30,000, far from Latino population centers.

The latest national figures, tallied in March by the US Census Bureau's Current Population Survey,
puts the US Latino population at 38 million people, representing one in nine Americans. And with
data showing a 40 percent growth rate in immigration among Latinos in the past three years, US
Census officials say Latinos will number 50 million by 2015.

Corporate recruiters say that managers who speak Spanish have a huge advantage in a growing
number of areas in the United States, especially across the South, where a third of the Latino
population resides. Likewise, the major political parties increasingly see Spanish as a language that
gets votes.

The Republican National Committee sent state party officials last spring to an intensive training
course and it is offering to pay tuition for other party leaders.

Never in the history of the United States has there been so large a number of Americans who speak
a single second language. The 2000 Census counted 28 million Americans who speak Spanish, the
highest number of a language other than English ever recorded in the United States. And although
only about 3 million of them reported that they spoke no English, marketing firms acknowledge that
a key way to form brand loyalty is to target that group through advertising campaigns in Spanish.

''It's spoken by more people here than in countries where Spanish is the official language,'' said

Internationally, the North American Free Trade Agreement has allowed US investors to reap huge
profits in Mexico - and inspired a new demand for Spanish-speaking businesspeople. Wal-Mart de
Mexico, for example, is now the No. 1 discount retail chain in the country, earning $10.2 million in
2002, a 13 percent increase over the previous year. President Bush is forging ahead to create a
similar free trade agreement with Central American countries, with South America next in line.

In cities such as Lawrence, more than half the population speaks Spanish, while even a suburban
town such as Wilbraham has a 7 percent Spanish-speaking population. Comedian Paul Rodriguez
captures that growth in one joke: When a Japanese man struggles to say something in English,
Rodriguez blurts out: ''You're in America. Speak Spanish!''

While executives who travel to Latin America need only a working knowledge of the language -
most managers in Latin America speak English anyway - they acknowledge that learning so late in
life means they may never be fluent. But they feel it's important to make the effort.

''Knowing the language presents more business opportunities,'' said Pyron, who has numerous
clients in Latin America. ''It makes people feel more at ease with you.''

He takes classes at HablEspanácq in Downtown Crossing, where the number of classes offered
has grown exponentially since its founding 17 years ago. Academic Director Natalia Cepeda says
when the school first opened it offered two classes. Now it offers 17 10-week courses, and a slew
of five- and two-week courses, as well as tutoring and corporate classes. The school has been
contracted by Partners HealthCare, Harvard Medical School, Fleet Bank, Pioneer Investments,
and Wellington Management, among others.

''Every year, we grow,'' Cepeda said.

Among the new students are people such as Nancy Newman of Boston who, two years ago, took
a job heading up State Street Bank's business development in Latin America. She got the job even
though she spoke no Spanish. Apparently, no bilingual person with her credentials applied for it. If
someone had, Newman suggested, that person would have gotten the job.

Like many Boston executives who are learning Spanish, Newman said she often finds herself talking
to her janitor, the sole Spanish-speaker in her office. Others find themselves injecting themselves
into conversations at the supermarket, or talking to waiters at Boston restaurants.

''At the Stop & Shop I go to, all the cashiers speak Spanish. They speak perfect English, but they
talk among each other in Spanish. They assume I don't know. And I get to listen in. It's great for
oral comprehension practice,'' said John Finn, an insurance defense attorney with Fuller,
Rosenberg, Palmer & Beliveau LLP.

While school districts in Massachusetts are facing the prospect of having to dismantle two-way
language programs, as part of the English immersion voter initiative passed last November,
wealthier districts are expanding their foreign language programs. Increasingly, however, Foreign
Language Department is coming to mean Spanish Language Department.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages states that more than 4 million of the
6 million high school students who studied a foreign language in 2000 took Spanish. The second
largest number was 1 million who studied French, followed by 283,000 studying German, 177,000
studying Latin, 64,000 studying Italian, and 50,000 studying Japanese.

Brookline schools now offer Spanish classes to students in the first grade.

''To get them prepared for their future, Spanish is so very important,'' said Manuela Bartiromo,
curriculum coordinator for Brookline's Foreign Language Department.

The key to speaking well is to start early.

That's why many school districts offer Spanish to students in the first grade. ''The plan, for many of
the students, and their parents, is to be proficient by the time they graduate,'' said Bartiromo.

By the time students in Brookline's Spanish program get to high school, they take field trips to
Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Dominican restaurants in the area.

In the summer of their junior year, they spend two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and stay with
local families.

The Spanish program is so popular, 58 percent of the students take it, compared with 22 percent
who take French, 8 percent who take Latin, 7 percent who take Mandarin Chinese, and 5 percent
who study Japanese.

Brookline High School student Jessica Coughlin is ahead of the game. At 18, she has five years of
Spanish under her belt. Knowing Spanish helped her go from office ''go-fer'' to playing a pivotal
role in her internship last summer with a London advertising firm, she said.

The firm was in the midst of an ad campaign to name a new American Express credit card in
Spanish. And Coughlin - the only person in the firm who spoke Spanish - saved the firm from
having to hire a translator.

''I was doing all the translating for them. If it weren't for me speaking Spanish they would've just
had me filing stuff,'' Coughlin said. ''It makes me want to stick with Spanish. I know it's going to
continue opening doors for me.''

Cindy Rodriguez can be reached at rodriguez@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/27/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.