May 9, 2001
By Deborah Sharp
¿Entiende Ud. español?
If your answer to, ''Do you understand Spanish?'' is ''no,'' get ready to be left behind.
With the surge over the past decade in the Hispanic population in the United States, speaking Spanish is becoming more of a necessity than a choice in many parts of the country. From feedlot managers in Nebraska to New York City stockbrokers, Americans are scrambling to learn a language that is now spoken by many of the 35.3 million Hispanics in the United States.
Americans are finding that not knowing Spanish can be a handicap, whether dealing with immigrants or schmoozing at a business lunch in the boss' native tongue. Even pop culture references sail over the heads of the unilingual -- from the taco-craving Chihuahua's '' Yo quiero Taco Bell '' to the crazy life, '' la vida loca,'' made famous by singer Ricky Martin.
''There's nothing foreign about Spanish anymore. It's the second language of the United States,'' says Sam Slick, who founded Command Spanish, the nation's largest firm specializing in teaching Spanish for the workplace.
But the rising linguistic tide also has sparked tension and resentment in many communities. Mauro Mujica, who heads the one-language advocacy group U.S. English, says it's fine for people who speak English to learn Spanish but not if it creates the notion that those who speak Spanish needn't learn English.
''The problem is we are slowing down the assimilation of new immigrants by making it way too easy to come to this country and not learn English,'' says Mujica, a native of Chile.
''An immigrant is an invited guest to this country,'' he says. ''We invited ourselves. The least we can do is integrate and become part of the new country.''
Type ''studying Spanish'' in to any Internet search engine, and thousands upon thousands of options appear.
Spanish dominates all other foreign languages in the USA's public schools. Enrollment has nearly doubled over the past two decades to about 3.3 million high school students. Similar statistics aren't available for adults in thousands of night classes and private Spanish language courses. But school owners say the numbers are soaring, even in the most unexpected areas.
Many have discovered that dim high school memories of conjugating verbs and reciting ''¿ Donde esta la biblioteca?'' (''Where is the library?'') mean nada (or nothing) in the workplace. So, in Ontario, Ore., Orchard Bank foots the bill for its staffers to study Spanish. In Washington, a teachers union offers lessons to members. And in Fountain Inn, S.C., and Detroit, law enforcement officials are lining up para habla español (to speak Spanish).
''The need is tremendous,'' says Conce Magaña, who teaches workplace Spanish at Garden City Community College in Kansas. Kansas has seen its Hispanic population double in the past decade, to 188,252 in 2000.
Such courses are not aimed at fluency, which takes the average English-speaking adult about five years to achieve. Instead, they cover basics and workplace pleasantries such as ''Please come in. Sit down.'' (Pase, por favor. Siéntese.) Teachers often tailor phrases and commands to specific occupations: For police, ''Stop! Drop the weapon!'' (¡Alto! (¡Suelte el arma!) For medical workers, ''Where does it hurt?'' (¿Dónde le duele?)
Though no one expects fluid conversations to ensue, Magaña says the simple Spanish phrases serve as a starting point for better communication. His students include everyone from bank tellers to firefighters in Finney County, Kan., where the Hispanic population has jumped 110%, to nearly 18,000 in the past decade. Hispanics make up 43% of the county's population of 40,523. Meatpacking and food-processing jobs have lured thousands of Mexican immigrants to the southwestern county.