Gerardo Piña-Rosales, The North American Academy of Spanish Language
First of all, dear reader, let us focus on the title of this essay: “The Spanish Language of the United States” instead of “The Spanish Language in the United States.” The difference between these two propositions is an essential one: it implies that we have begun to speak of a United Stated Spanish with its own characteristics, as one more of the multiple variants of the Spanish language spoken around the world.
Spanish Speakers in the United States
It is estimated that there are some 45 million Spanish-speaking people in the United States, which translate into 15 percent of the nation’s population, and it is expected that this figure will rise to more the 150 million Spanish speakers by 2050. In other words, it is highly probable that the United States will become the country with the largest number of Spanish-speaking inhabitants on our planet. More than half of the 45 million Spanish speakers were born in this country, and they make up a younger-than-average portion of the overall population: 48 percent of Hispanics are younger the 25 years of age. Whether or not a minority language replaces the language spoken by the majority depends, above all, on the new generations; thus, the relative youth of the Hispanic population will undoubtedly influence the future of the Spanish language of the United States.
When we speak of the Spanish language of the United States, it is important to point out that we are not referring to a monolithic, uniform language, but to one that encompasses a number of variants. In this regard, we can divide the country into several linguistic areas, each with its own distinct characteristics. In the West and Southwest, where 60% of Hispanic reside, a chicano variant of Spanish is spoken; in Florida, and especially in Miami, a Cuban variant of Spanish is heard. In the Northeast, including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, a Caribbean form of Spanish is spoken. Furthermore, one can hear isleño Spanish in Louisiana and a distinctive form of Spanish spoken in the region of the Sabine Rive (Louisiana and Texas).
The massive influence of English has imparted a unique imprint on the Spanish language of the United States, which contrasts with that of other Spanish-speaking countries. This particular influence is manifested in new vocabulary, much of it based on “borrowed” words, which have contributed to the incorporation of Anglicisms into the Spanish spoken in those countries.
English Influence at Work
Hispanic immigrants try to learn and speak English at their workplace and in their associations wit Americans. This effort to communicate tends to facilitate the use of Spanglish. In time, if they have a certain level of education, they learn both languages well and become bilingual. There is a desire to acquire a better knowledge no only of English but also of the Spanish of their heritage.
A distinctive characteristic of the Spanish language of the United States is the so-called “code-switching,” which consists of a speaker’s use of both languages during a conversation. Since this means of communication has not been methodically studied until recently, a certain notion exists–both among the general public and among certain educators–that it is a random mixture of languages, i.e., Spanglish. In fact it is a a process with its own structural conventions, one the also plays a unique role among bilingual Spanish speakers, precisely as an alternative to communicating in a single language. The economic importance of the Spanish language of the United States is greater the that of any other Spanish-speaking country. The Spanish language would survive if only for the United States.
Amastae, J., and Elías-Olivares, L. (1982) Spanish in the United States: Sociolinguistic Aspects. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Elías-Olivares, L., (Ed). (1983). Spanish in the U.S. Setting: Beyond the Southwest. Rosslyn, VA: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
Lipski, John M. (2008). Varieties of Spanish in the United States. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
López-Morales, Humberto, (Ed.). (2009). Enciclopedia del español en los Estados Unidos. Madrid: Instituto Cervantes/Santillana.