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THE NEW YORK TIMES
To Talk Like New York, Sign Up for Spanish
by Mirta Ojito
October 18, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
Sitting on their mothers' laps, six small children wait quietly
in a second-floor schoolroom on the Upper East Side. The oldest
child is 2; the youngest just turned 1. One sucks his thumb. Another
plays with her belly button.
Class is about to start.
''Si, quien esta aqui?'' asks Veronica Noguera, a youthful
teacher with a furry puppet on each hand. ''Buenos dias, ninos.
When Ms. Noguera's tiny students start talking, their first
language will be English. But their parents, who don't speak Spanish
themselves, have sent their children here to learn what they are
sure is becoming an essential skill in this increasingly bilingual
''I don't want my child to lag behind,'' said Linda Hughes,
who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and commutes an hour each
way to take her 3-year-old son, Lucas, to Spanish lessons once
a week in Manhattan. ''This city is so bilingual already, you
can no longer ignore Spanish.''
Ignoring Spanish would be quite a feat in New York. Latinos
have been woven indelibly into the city's fabric for generations
-- Puerto Ricans began arriving in the 1930's, followed by Dominicans,
Cubans and, lately, Mexicans. Today, half the Bronx's residents
are of Hispanic origin; one in five New Yorkers speaks Spanish
at home. In the last 10 years alone, the Hispanic presence in
the city has grown by 400,000 -- the population of Atlanta. At
2.2 million, Hispanic New Yorkers outnumber every other minority
group. While in years past, Hispanic immigrants and Puerto Ricans
tended to live and work within the boundaries of traditional enclaves
like Washington Heights, the Lower East Side, the Bronx and parts
of Queens, today's Hispanic residents are moving beyond the barrios,
the factories and the bodegas and are flooding the city's service-oriented
businesses looking for work and business opportunities, often
in Spanish only.
And non-Hispanic New Yorkers by the thousands, from mothers
with babies to office workers, doctors and priests, are responding
to the trend in a practical way. They are signing up for Spanish
lessons -- in their own homes, at work and in night schools. In
the last two years, Spanish has become the most requested language
in the city's private language schools, where registration has
doubled, forcing many schools to add classes or move to bigger
buildings, school administrators said.
Speaking Spanish is becoming a desirable skill in the work
force, one employers are willing to pay for. Workers in businesses
like the St. Regis Hotel, Metropolitan Hospital Center and a variety
of news organizations, including The New York Times, have signed
up for Spanish classes paid for wholly or in part by their employers.
The New York Police Department will soon begin offering language
programs to officers. Churches and schools, often unable to fill
positions that demand proficiency in Spanish , bring in priests
and teachers from Spain and Latin America.
''Thirty years ago, we started training people to do business
in Latin America or Spain,'' said Richard Huarte, director of
the New York office of Inlingua, a language school that specializes
in corporate accounts. ''Now people are learning Spanish to deal
with people right here in New York. The Hispanic community is
the boom market right now. It's kind of no secret that to reach
it you have to know Spanish.''
Judy Richler, a former judicial referee on Manhattan's Family
Court, knows it well. She realized about three years ago that
about a third of the people in her courtroom primarily spoke Spanish
. Although interpreters were always available, Ms. Richler said,
she decided that to do her job well, she had to be able to match
the words to the facial expressions of the people whose fates
depended on her rulings.
Ms. Richler signed up for night classes at Cervantes Institute,
a language and cultural center near Grand Central Terminal, and
joined a tertulia, an evening chat group at the Spanish Institute,
a cultural and language center on Park Avenue. Today, Ms. Richler
can understand intricate cases and dispense legal advice in Spanish
''In court, I know what the clients are saying the moment they
say it, and they know that I know,'' said Ms. Richler, 60, who
now works as a volunteer lawyer in Housing Court in Manhattan.
''The fact that I can look them in the eye as they speak and I
see their body language is a great help in what I do.''
Anastasio Sanchez, director of the language program at the
Cervantes Institute, said that in the last two years the number
of students at his school had almost doubled. Last year, 1,440
students registered for classes; the year before, 850. This year,
demand has grown so much that classes are taught in offices and
rooms not previously used as classrooms. The school plans to move
to a bigger building to accommodate its expanding business.
At the Spanish Institute, about 1,700 students registered for
classes last year, double the number of just two years before,
even though the school also raised tuition by 10 percent, said
Ana Menendez, the director of the language program.
The number of students taking Spanish in the city's Berlitz
language schools has grown by 37 percent. Last year, Spanish surpassed
English as the most popular language at one of two Berlitz centers
in Manhattan. More than half the students in that center, on Rector
Street, said they needed it for work or to move to another job,
said Dawn Liles, the school's marketing associate.
The growing interest in Spanish , school administrators said,
is a function of how widespread the language has become in New
York. Spanish is everywhere these days -- from the labels identifying
food and produce in the city's busiest supermarkets to the signs
on city buses advertising shows on WNJU, Channel 47, the local
affiliate of Telemundo, one of the country's two Spanish -language
In the city's schools, Hispanic children make up almost 40
percent of the student body. Many of them are bilingual or know
only Spanish . Their growing presence has forced school administrators
to scramble before the beginning of recent school years to hire
qualified bilingual teachers. Last year, 35 teachers from Puerto
Rico and 7 from Spain were hired. This year, 40 came from Puerto
Rico and 6 from Spain, school administrators said.
''We'll always have a severe shortage of Spanish teachers.
It's an area of great concern to us,'' said Gary Barton, who oversees
teacher hiring for the Board of Education. ''Our attempts to bridge
that gap are part of every recruitment effort, every advertisement,
every speech, everything we do.''
In Roman Catholic churches, where Spanish Masses were once
rare and confined to basements, about 50 percent of churchgoers
are now Hispanic immigrants. The New York Archdiocese has taught
Spanish to its priests for decades in its own school. But in the
last five years, it has had to bring in 150 priests and 80 nuns
from Latin America and Spain, church officials said.
''We've had priests who suddenly realized one day that they
were preaching to a group of people who did not understand the
sermons,'' said Martin Poblete, permanent adviser to the Archdiocese
on Hispanic affairs.
Businesses and cultural institutions have also taken note of
the demographic changes in the city. The 92d Street Y offers health
classes and literary events in Spanish . In stores like Harry's
Shoes, on the Upper West Side, and the Gap at Madison Avenue and
86th Street, some sales clerks greet clients in Spanish .
''From the top 500 companies to smaller businesses, there is
a sense that the Latino population is growing,'' said Justin Blake,
a spokesman with the New York City Partnership and Chamber of
Commerce. ''The private sector is waking up and seeing that there
is an opportunity to make money.''
More than 10 percent of the companies that call Mr. Blake looking
for qualified employees say they want people who speak Spanish
, he said. But Spanish is so prevalent in New York that companies
can usually find Spanish -speaking employees from the start, he
said. Companies and agencies that are based outside Manhattan
tend not to seek Spanish lessons because they are able to find
a bilingual work force in their own neighborhoods.
In Manhattan, though, language training has become a necessity,
especially for people who work in the service industry and in
The New York Police Department is now exploring options to
offer Spanish classes to all those on the 40,000-officer force
who wish to take them. Officials there are meeting with several
language schools to design a program for police officers, said
Yolanda Jimenez, deputy police commissioner for community affairs.
The interest in Spanish is so widespread that directors at
the Cervantes Institute are developing a plan to hold classes
at job sites next year instead of having the workers commute to
Doctors at Metropolitan Hospital Center in East Harlem started
taking Spanish lessons at work almost two years ago. A teacher
from the Spanish Institute goes to the hospital three times a
week. The hospital began offering the classes after administrators
at New York Medical College, which staffs the hospital, conducted
a survey of patients to find out what language they wished to
speak with their doctors. About 65 percent said they would prefer
Among the doctors who were taking the course for beginners
earlier this year was Dr. George Bousvaros, a 69-year-old cardiologist.
He said he trusted that his patients would eventually learn English,
but until they do, he wants to be able to ask the type of questions
that cardiologists everywhere routinely ask. Dr. Bousvaros has
already learned the one word he needs more than any other. It
is ''corazon,'' Spanish for ''heart.''
In the Language Workshop for Children on the Upper East Side,
where classes are available for children as young as 6 months,
registration has tripled in five years. In 1994, the school had
fewer than 50 students learning Spanish ; now, there are 180,
said Francois Thibaut, the school's director. A class had to be
added this fall to accommodate the increasing demand, he said.
At the end of a recent 45-minute class for toddlers, it was
clear that children not old enough to converse in any language
already knew the names of fruits -- they can pick la manzana verde
(the green apple) from a plastic basket -- and understand simple
concepts like open and closed, high and low, all in Spanish .
When asked to pick her favorite color, 2-year-old Alexandrea Duval
said ''azul,'' (blue) to the delight of all. But perhaps no one
was more delighted in that room than Ms. Noguera, Alexandrea's
29-year-old teacher, who is an immigrant from Colombia. Back home,
Ms. Noguera was an elementary school grammar teacher. When she
came to the United States five years ago, she said, she realized
that her English was not good enough for her to continue her career
as a teacher. Then she discovered New Yorkers' thirst for her
''Thank God New York is so Hispanic,'' Ms. Noguera said. ''I
can do what I do best, in my own language. I could have never