Phillip M. Carter: It’s time for Miami to embrace bilingualism

The following op-ed was written in Spanish and published in the print edition of Diario las Americas on Wed., April 15. Phillip M. Carter is a professor of linguistics in the FIU Department of English. Carter has conducted research on bilingualism and Hispanic-English dialects in the United States, particularly in Texas, North Carolina and Florida. He has recently brought extensive media attention to the Miami English dialect through national and international media, including the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, CNN, CNN Español, MSN Latino and BBC Mundo.

Phillip M. Carter, professor of linguistics in the FIU Department of English

Phillip M. Carter, professor of linguistics in the FIU Department of English

Despite all of the economic success that high levels of societal bilingualism have made possible in Miami, very little is done in terms of public policy and education to promote and protect it – and what needs protecting is our Spanish. Miami is demographically unique in that it has the distinction of being both the most Latino large city in the U.S., as well as the most foreign-born. On account of these statistics, we can add a third distinction to the list: Miami is now also the most bilingual large city in North America. As an oral phenomenon, there are – proportionally speaking – more fluent bilinguals in Miami than in San Antonio, Los Angeles, and even Montreal, the Canadian city known for its language politics and strong support of French.

In many ways, Miami thrives on its bilingualism. The Spanish-language media and entertainment industries in the U.S. are largely based here, creating jobs for tens of thousands of people. Tourists from across Latin America flock here, in part because of the ease of getting around in Spanish. And across Miami-Dade County, condos are sold and deals are closed because of the presence of both languages, Spanish and English. In fact, the economic value of bilingualism in Miami is so tremendous that one wonders if the city could exist in its current form without it.

To the casual observer, Spanish in Miami may seem safe and inevitable – it’s easy enough to hear and see Spanish across the county, from Doral to Miami Beach. But most of the Spanish-speaking going on in Miami-Dade is among immigrants, not their children and grandchildren who are born here. For the Miami born, research shows that what linguists call language shift, a phenomenon in which a speech community replaces one language with another, is well underway. This means the Miami born are becoming more English-speaking and less bilingual. My own research with Professor Andrew Lynch (University of Miami) shows that Miami-born Latinos even harbor negative perceptions of Spanish as compared to English. This is a disturbing finding since language attitudes are one of the key factors in predicting whether or not a language will be transmitted to the next generation.

The biggest threat to the sustainability of Miami’s bilingualism is the lack of bilingual education programs in our schools. This lack is remarkable considering not only Miami’s demographic profile and the value of Spanish to our economy, but also the fact that the bilingual education movement in this country was pioneered here when Coral Way Elementary became officially bilingual in 1963. That program was considered so successful that school districts across the U.S. took note and followed Miami’s lead. But today, the vast majority of our students do not have access to comprehensive bilingual education. My undergraduate students at FIU, who are mostly Miami born Latinos, are native bilinguals who should have equal working capacity in English and Spanish. But after thirteen years of compulsory education in English, they very often lack literacy skills in Spanish and generally feel unprepared to use Spanish in professional settings. Some even feel ashamed of their Spanish. And while non-Latinos in prior generations may have bemoaned the presence of Spanish in Miami, my non-Latino students desperately wish they had access to it. They are in general far more persuaded by the economic, sociocultural, and cognitive advantages of bilingualism than by outmoded notions about the righteousness of English monolingualism.

For all the advantages of bilingualism in Miami, one has the impression that Spanish is merely tolerated here, rather than embraced and cultivated. We need not follow Quebec’s hardline model of language policy in order to protect local bilingualism, but as a minimum, the skill of bilingualism should be available to all local students who want access to it. The reality of language shift is upon is – it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

 – Phillip M. Carter |