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Spanish lessons?

October 07, 2005

ADELPHIA CABLE CUSTOMERS IN Los Angeles were startled this week when the audio feeds for several programs inexplicably shifted from English to Spanish. The first instance occurred Sunday night, during "Desperate Housewives" on KABC. Then on Tuesday, viewers in Silver Lake and Santa Monica complained about similar problems during two syndicated shows on KTLA, "Friends" and "Todo Mundo Quiere a Ramon."

On first blush, this seemed like just another glitch from a company whose cable system has long been viewed as a technological backwater. Plagued by financial difficulties, Adelphia was slow to upgrade its aging lines and convert to digital. And even after it did, city regulators say its service was still muy malo.

Company officials blamed the soundtrack switcheroo on damage caused by el fuego de Topanga. But perhaps Adelphia had a more civic-minded purpose: helping Angelenos improve their Spanish.

And what better way to do that than hijack the dialogue on their favorite shows?

A few statistics are worth noting. According to the 2000 census, almost 45% of the population in L.A. County is Latino. Of the 8.8 million people who are at least 5 years old, nearly 40% primarily speak Spanish at home, compared with 45% who speak English.

For the U.S. as a whole, Spanish is less widely spoken, but it is still more common than other foreign tongues. Roughly una of every nueve personas habla espanol en casa, according to figures del census.

Native-born Americans, particularly those whose immigrant roots have been buried for generations, tend to show poco interes in mastering languages other than English. Some might argue that most of us don't do particularly well with that language, either, but that's neither here nor there. For most Americans, foreign languages are a luxury, something you need to learn only if you're negotiating contracts abroad or wooing an exchange student from Italy. Or on some nights, it turns out, wondering why Raymond's parents are pestering him yet again.

Millions of multilingual Europeans perfect their English by watching undubbed American programs on TV. So maybe Adelphia is on to something. Next time, though, the glitch should be accompanied by subtitles.

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