Lost in translation

THIS FALL, ABC WILL BECOME the first English-language broadcast network to make all its prime-time programming available in the language of Cervantes. While the Spanish subtitles (or dubs) may mark a pop-culture milestone, it’s unclear they make for wise corporate strategy.

Like other large producers of popular culture, ABC is constantly adjusting its plans in response to the nation’s changing demographic profile. But ABC executives shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they have cracked the coveted “Hispanic market.” Too many media professionals have fallen for the simplistic but false notion that “Hispanic” is synonymous with “Spanish.” The truth is that Latino linguistic assimilation is not that different from that of European newcomers a century ago: The first generation often speaks only enough English to get by, the second is bilingual, and the third is largely English-only.

To be sure, Spanish persists in the United States longer than most languages -- particularly in the border regions. The overwhelming trend, however, is toward English. Even in the 1990s, a time when Spanish-language media boomed and bilingualism became economically advantageous, linguistic assimilation did not weaken. In fact, among third-generation Latinos, it strengthened. In 1990, 64% of third-generation Mexican American children spoke only English at home; by 2000, that figure had risen to 71%.

Few ethnic groups in the U.S. are as dynamic as the Latino population, two-thirds of which is of Mexican origin. Other immigrant waves have had a beginning, middle and end in which group self-definition gradually shifted from an immigrant identity to an ethnic American one. But because Latinos are the product of successive waves of migration, cultural transition is not linear or even one-way.

In 1920, the Mexican population in the U.S. was largely foreign-born, and Spanish reigned. Half a century later, more than eight in 10 Mexican Americans were U.S.-born, and English was dominant. By 1990, nearly half of adult Latinos were foreign-born once again, and the Spanish language had made a comeback. But sometime in the mid-1990s, the foreign-born portion of the Latino population reached its peak. Procreation rather than migration became the primary source of Latino population growth. The third generation has become the fastest-growing segment of the Latino population.


Thus, even as large corporations continue to discover the wonders of Spanish, English will increasingly become the language for the nation’s growing Latino market. The U.S.-born children and grandchildren of immigrants are changing the Latino audience from a largely immigrant one to an ethnic American one.

Spanish will continue to be important. But the youngest viewers of “Lost,” regardless of ethnicity, are increasingly likely to watch it in English.