The Prevalence of the Spanish Language Within the US

Spanish Language in USA

Written by Kristina Temelkova

I'm from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and I'm currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Vienna. My lifelong passions are languages and writing. I speak English, Bulgarian, German and Russian.

January 18, 2021

Have you ever wondered about the prevalence and importance of the Spanish language within the US?

There are around 530 million Spanish speakers worldwide and more than 50 million of them are in the USA.

It is a common misconception that it is only in recent years that native Spanish speakers are beginning to populate certain areas of the US.

The Hispanic population in the US could go back to 400 years ago. English and Spanish have coexisted for more than 4 centuries in The States.

If we have to be precise, however, Spanish has spoken on the continent of North America for even longer than English. According to Phillip M. Carter’s report “the Spanish language is second only to Native American languages that spoken for centuries prior to colonization.”

Moreover, even Americans would surprise to learn that the Southwest part of the US as well as other American cities have populated by Hispanic communities centuries ago.

In today’s blog, we are offering you an in-depth analysis of the prevalence of the Spanish language in the US.

1. The number of Hispanic and Spanish speakers in the US

Spanish (also referred to as American Spanish) is the second most common language in the US after English. Here are some more precise numbers on this topic:

  • 53 million Hispanic people live in the US (17% of the American population)
  • 38.3 million people speak Spanish as a primary language at home (excluding the 3.6 million Spanish native speakers in Puerto Rico)
  • 45 million Hispanic people can speak Spanish as a first or second language
  • 6 million Spanish language learners

Hispanic and Spanish speakers in the US

Source 

Based on these statistics it could be claimed that the Spanish-speaking population outside of Mexico is, indeed, in the US.

Nowadays the Spanish language is so prevalent that the US considered being among the 4 largest Spanish-speaking countries worldwide.

Due to its ever-increasing popularity, many native Americans opt for Spanish as a subject at school.

Most common language spoken in USA

Source

In New Mexico and Puerto Rico, all laws published in Spanish and English, however, Spanish is the predominantly uses language.

What’s more, Spanish is the second most widely spoken language after English in 43 American states and the District of Columbia.

The Hispanic and Latino population in the US is “the second fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States after Asian Americans”. Since 19% of the Hispanics can speak only Spanish there are areas where English, excluded from people’s life.

This has resulted in the advent of  Spanish language mass media such as Univisión, Telemundo USA, and Azteca America.

Moreover, at whitehouse.gov could be found Spanish translations of presidential speeches as well as addresses by other American authorities.

Additionally, some non-Hispanic American politicians who are fluent in Spanish have even delivered their speeches in Spanish when speaking in front of Hispanic communities.

Also Read: Spanish Localization: Should You Localize into LA or European Spanish?

2. History of Spanish in the US

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, Spanish, spoken on the territory of the US for far longer than English. In fact, it was the Spanish that discovered the North American continent. Here is a short summary of the events:

  • 1513: the arrival of the Spanish on, what we call today, the Florida peninsula
  • 1520: the Spanish returned for further exploration of the continent
  • 1540: an exploration of the West and the Southwest
  • 1565: the first permanent colony in San Agustín, Florida
  • 1520-1570: an exploration of the Atlantic coast and first attempts to settle colonies
  • 1605: New Mexico was established

The Spaniards continue to explore the new land for centuries. Their expeditions and settlements left behind an enormous linguistic and cultural heritage that has preserved even today.

Later on, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th millions of Spanish people migrated to the US where they worked in cigar factories, mines, etc.

These immigrants formed tight-knitted communities all over the US and their descendants are still populating the continent.

In fact, the ever-growing Hispanic communities in the US are still exerting a massive influence which could be attributed to the big number of Mexican immigrants.

Although in recent years the number of Mexican immigrants has been on a steady decline, Mexican remain the largest group of immigrants in the US.

Number of immigrants

Source

3. Spanish Varieties in the US

Similar to English, Spanish is not a monolithic entity but is rather a dialectically diverse language. This diversity is likely to have resulted from the Spanish settlers who came to the New World during the colonization.

As Phillip M. Carter points out “they brought unique varieties of Spanish, resulting in what linguists call the founder effect, which can trace linguistic features of contemporary dialects to dialect differences at the time of settlement.”

This makes Spanish dialects in the US a great field for linguistic research. According to linguists, a number of Spanish varieties have features identical to 16th-17th century Spanish.

For instance, the Spanish of Colorado is characterized by monolingual vowels, which are non-existent in present-day Spanish due to the diphthongization process ( the combining of two vowel sounds into one complex segment).

Interestingly, some Spanish varieties have even borrowed words from different Native American languages, however, these borrowings are rather limited.

Spanish Varieties in the US

Source

It’s important to highlight that the development of the Spanish varieties in the US should not be contributed entirely to the Spanish colonization 400 years ago.

The Spanish diaspora which settled in the 19th-20th century as well as the immigrants from Spanish-speaking counties such as Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico have influenced the Spanish linguistic landscape.

4. The Future of the American Spanish

Another common misconception is that Spanish poses a threat to English. Despite the growing number of Spanish speakers in the US, this is very unlikely to happen.

In fact, it could be the other way round. According to linguists the Spanish spoken in some parts of California might be undergoing a process of simplification of its tense system.

Moreover, there is some evidence that “immigrant languages are usually lost by the third generation of speakers” since the immigrant descendants prefer to speak English in their family and outside of it.

Also Read: Beginners Guide to Website Translation for Latin America

Which variety to choose when translating in Spanish for the US?

Spanish speaking countries flags

Source 

As you can see Spanish is an incredibly diverse language, however, this could make a translation of documents pretty hard. Maybe you are asking yourself which variety/ varieties would be best to translate in? Well, neutral Spanish can actually spare you the trouble!

Neutral Spanish is created by linguists and includes terms that could be understood by most Spanish-language speakers.

Although it is not officially recognized by any Spanish-speaking government, most media use neutral Spanish to reach a wider audience of Spanish speakers.

For North America, most Spanish speakers speak a variation of Mexican Spanish and Latin American Spanish. So you can choose between neutral Spanish and Mexican Spanish (also known as LA Spanish) to reach the Hispanic population in the US

All in all, we could say that the Spanish varieties in the US have been a result of a 4 century-long historical and social development.

Spanish will undoubtedly remain an inextricable part of the linguistic landscape of the US for a long time.

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