Why US citizens should embrace Spanish

The United States has no official language. While English certainly serves as the de facto language, Spanish continues to grow as a primary and secondary tongue among the nation’s inhabitants. MultiLingual’s just-released edition on Spanish details the importance of the language around the rest of the world, too.

Despite backlash from some pockets of the US population, Spanish has quadrupled in speakers over the past decades, with predictions to hit 138 million Spanish-speakers by 2050 — which would make it the largest Spanish-speaking nation on the planet.

Speaking a second language has proven social, economic and mental benefits, so perhaps now is the perfect time for North Americans to broaden their language horizons — rather than build walls designed to keep Spanish-speakers out.

The United States is a nation built upon conquests and immigration, so it should come as no surprise that there is not only one popular language within its borders. English is the most spoken language within the country; about 80% of the population speaks it as a first language. However, in total, there are more than 350 different languages used by US inhabitants, with the second-largest being español.

According to a study published by Instituto Cervantes, there are 41 million native Spanish-speakers in the United States, plus a further 11.6 million who are bilingual. This puts the US ahead of Colombia (48 million) and Spain (46 million) in terms of Spanish-speakers, and second only to Mexico (121 million). Among the sources cited in the report is the US Census Office, which estimates that the US will have 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050, making it the biggest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth, with Spanish expected to be the mother tongue of almost one-third of its citizens.

One look at the history of Spanish-speaking in the US demonstrates its ceaseless popularity. In 1980, 11 million people, or 5% of the population, were Spanish-speakers. Fast-forward to this decade and that number has quadrupled to 41 million Spanish speakers, accounting for 14% of the population.

By state, the highest concentration is in the former Spanish colonies of the south and southwest, with New Mexico at 47% of inhabitants, followed by California and Texas (both 38%) and Arizona (30%). Perhaps surprisingly, more than 6% of Alaskans are also Spanish-speakers. The language is clearly advancing with more speakers in more regions of the country, but not everyone seems to accept the increase of language diversity.

Spanish United States
County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

Bilingual backlash

It’s safe to say these are complicated cultural and social times in the United States. People appear to be more divided than ever, overseen by an administration which still doesn’t have Spanish-language website almost two years into power. One does not need to search far to see news stories depicting a population struggling with changes brought on by the uptake of Spanish.

For example, a Spanish-speaking Houston area Walmart customer says he was discriminated against by an employee at the store. Joel Aparicio posted a video on Facebook of the employee telling him to “speak English” because “we’re in Texas.”

“This lady didn’t want to speak Spanish. She discriminated me by saying she didn’t speak Spanish,” Aparicio wrote on Facebook.

Meanwhile, in May, Aaron Schlossberg was forced to issue a public apology after being recorded in a viral video threatening to report restaurant workers to immigration officials for speaking Spanish.

“So my next call is to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to have each one of them kicked out of my country,” Schlossberg ranted. “If they have the balls to come here and live off my money — I pay for their welfare, I pay for their ability to live here — the least they can do is speak English,” he yelled. After the video gained online attention, the lawyer was quick to back-track and apologize. “Seeing myself online opened my eyes — the manner in which I expressed myself is unacceptable and is not the person I am,” he tweeted.

Clearly, there is some friction over the language divide. However, a review of the positives far outweigh any negatives when it comes to learning and speaking a new language — an important element to keep in mind as Spanish continues to grow within the United States.

A Spanish solution

Tens of millions of speakers present tens of millions of opportunities. Learning a new language has proven benefits in a number of areas of contemporary life, and any doubts quickly fall to the wayside when compared to the numerous positives of learning Spanish

Employees who are bilingual are simply more marketable. Increased globalization means multilingualism makes someone more attractive for varied jobs in varied locations. Meanwhile, socially, the ability to speak Spanish opens numerous cultural doors. It is an opportunity to better engage with people in the community: to embrace their culture, their music, their dance and their way of life.

The benefits are not only social, or economic, but also mental. Having to grapple with two languages makes the brain work harder, which in turn may make it more resilient in later life, say academics.

One study found that, among people who did eventually get dementia, those who were bilingual developed the disease three to four years later than those who did not. The truth is that people learn to speak languages for a variety of reasons, with professional development, personal growth and relationships regularly ranking as the biggest motivators.

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that learning a new language comes with a variety of beneficial byproducts. Furthermore, The Index of Human Development ranks Spanish as the second most important language on earth, behind English but ahead of Mandarin. Aprender el Español arguably opens up the mind, and the world, to possibilities that are simply not available with only one language.

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