Not All U.S. Spanish Speakers Speak the Same Language

¿Hablas español? Well, according to a recent report by the government-run Spanish language organization Instituto Cervantes, as reported in the Guardian, the United States is now the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country — after Mexico — with 41 million native speakers, plus another 11.6 million who are bilingual. According to U.S. census figures from 2014, Hispanics accounted for 17 percent of the total population, some 55 million people. These statistics are important for many reasons, including the fact that Forbes estimates Hispanic purchasing power to be $1.5 trillion in 2015, with the market growing larger every year: the overall Hispanic population in the U.S. grew a full 2.1 percent between 2013 and 2014.

An immigrant language

But not all Spanish is created equal. Spanish is the official language of Spain and 19 countries in Latin America, plus the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. This means that 21 distinct “national” varieties of the language are spoken among immigrants from these countries to the United States.

In the U.S., most Hispanics — a term referring exclusively to people ethnically identified with Spanish-speaking countries, versus Latino, which includes Brazilians and excludes Spaniards — regardless of whether or not they speak the language at home, identify culturally with the language.

As of 2013, a full 64 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. were of Mexican heritage, according to census statistics. Living mainly in border states from California over to Texas, Hispanics of Mexican descent tend to speak varieties of Spanish hailing from Mexico.

Puerto Ricans make up the next largest Hispanic group in the U.S., accounting for 9.5 percent of the Hispanic population. All Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth, no matter if they are born on the island or the mainland, so they are never counted officially as immigrants, with the largest communities being in New York — home of the nuyoricans — and Florida.

Cubans and Salvadorans, the former mainly in Florida and the latter mostly in California and the Washington, D.C., area, each comprise 3.7 percent of the Hispanic population, while Dominicans account for 3.3 percent and Guatemalans, 2.4 percent. Each of these communities speaks variants of the Spanish spoken in their respective cultural and national backgrounds, further complicated by the presence of various regional dialects — linguists identify 10 major dialects of Mexican Spanish — and even sub-national languages, such as Catalan from Spain or Quechua from the Andes region of South America.

In fact, many varieties of Spanish from the Caribbean — including several Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Colombian dialects — are based on Andalusian Spanish, spoken by colonists from the southern region of Spain, and around Seville in particular, who settled in the New World from the 15th through the 18th centuries. African cultural and linguistic influences had a longer-lasting effect on Caribbean Spanish versus the Spanish of Central America and the Andes, which has greater influences from the indigenous populations on the continent.

Born in the USA

Finally, there are the homegrown Spanish speakers, whose families have been in the United States for several generations and whose Spanish contains elements from the various Latino communities around them, plus English. “Spanglish” words such as liquiando (leaking) and parquear (to park) blend in with entire phrases spoken fluidly and alternately in English and Spanish, especially by younger generations who are formally educated in English, but frequently or exclusively speak Spanish with family members.

And Spanish is also the most popular “foreign” language taken by high school students in the U.S., with 790,000 American students enrolled in Spanish courses in 2013, according to the Modern Language Association, some of whom continue their studies and become fluent speakers, despite not identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

But don’t worry. The essentials — like please, thank you, and “Where is the bathroom?” — are the same, no matter what variety you speak.

Are you a U.S. Spanish speaker? What’s your take on Spanglish and the impact of Spanish variants in the U.S. marketplace?