In the United States, Se Habla Español

Sep 12, 2013


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Last month, the Census Bureau released data showing that 38 million Americans speak Spanish at home. This finding places the U.S. fifth on a list of countries by number of Spanish-speakers. Even more interesting among the Census Bureau's findings was that most Americans who speak Spanish at home also report speaking English "very well" (as identified by the findings). Perhaps the most striking among the findings was that 3 million non-Hispanic people reported speaking Spanish at home. The reality reflected in these findings is that Spanish continues to be an integral part of the national fabric.

The economic links between the U.S. and Latin America have only grown stronger with continuing globalization. Latin America is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S. and the country's fast-growing trading partner, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The region will continue to be the main source of new immigrants for the foreseeable future even though immigration from the region has leveled-off in recent years. In addition, 63% of Latin American immigrants maintain some kind of connection to their native country, such as traveling back home or communicating with relatives, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. To maintain these attachments, U.S. Hispanics must also maintain their Spanish-language ability, even as they adopt English and assimilate.

However, this assimilation is happening in both directions, meaning that the national culture in the U.S. is absorbing Latin American elements. As we see from the latest release from the Census Bureau, some non-Hispanics are beginning to adopt Spanish as the language they speak at home. Another example is that Spanish is now the fastest growing field in the humanities today and more than 50% of enrollments in language classes in the U.S. are in Spanish according to the Department of Hispanic Languages & Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh.

Junyoung Verónica Kim, Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Iowa, makes a similar observation; "all Spanish departments in the country are growing at a feverish pace. We're one humanities department that doesn't ever have to worry about enrollment." Professor Kim has also noticed that, as the Pew Hispanic Center has found, Hispanic Americans are not abandoning Spanish, even as they learn English and assimilate. "The second and third generations (like a lot of my students) are learning Spanish since in order to be competitive in the global market, English is not enough."

Additionally, for Hollywood, the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. is increasingly being recognized as an anchor audience. Eugenio Derbez' Spanish-language film Instructions Not Included grossed $10 million during Labor Day weekend even though it only opened in 347 theaters nationwide (a fraction of the number of theaters that screened "One Direction: This Is Us" for example). This makes it the highest grossing opening weekend of a Spanish-language film ever in the U.S. [Instructions Not Included also made history in terms of revenue per theater. Per screen, the film was the highest-grossing picture to open over Labor Day weekend. The film earned on average $22,594 per screen, while One Direction: This Is Us, for example, earned on average $5,777 per screen.]

This phenomenon is clearly visible in social media. As I noted in an earlier piece, many English-dominant Hispanic Americans, active in social media, prefer to watch soccer matches in Spanish and they're drawing non-Hispanic soccer fans into the fold. Recently, I have noticed a similar trend among telenovela fans in social media. Looking at the Twitter handles of Univision's fans of the week during the network's broadcast of the hit telenovela series Amores Verdaderos, we found that 50% of them Tweeted mostly in English and 27% Tweeted sometimes in English. In other words, the most passionate fans of this Spanish-language series Tweet sometimes -- or mostly -- in English.

As the U.S. evolves and the 53 million and growing Hispanic Americans become increasingly integrated into the national fabric, two trends are emerging. The first is that, as much as Hispanic Americans are becoming Americanized, non-Hispanic Americans are becoming Latin-Americanized. The second is that, even as Hispanic immigrants, their children and their grandchildren are becoming English dominant, the Spanish language is becoming a vital part of the American idiom.