The United States is emerging as a vast laboratory for the endurance of Spanish, even as states enact laws making English the official language and President Donald Trump pushes for a wall on the Mexico border.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Wander into El Super, a sprawling grocery store in the same valley where fortune seekers on horseback laid claim nearly four centuries ago to one of Spain’s most remote possessions, and the resilience of the language they brought with them stands on display.
Reggaetón, the musical genre born in Puerto Rico, blares from the speakers. Shoppers mull bargains in the accents of northern Mexico. A carnicería offers meat, a panadería bread, a salchichonería cold cuts, and there’s also a tortillería — that one’s self-explanatory for many who never even studied the language of Miguel de Cervantes.
“Everything I need here is in Spanish,” said Vanessa Quezada, 23, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, gesturing toward the branch of the First Convenience Bank, where tellers greet people with a smile and “Buenas tardes.”
Top 10 languages
1. Chinese (Mandarin): 898 million
2. Spanish: 437 million
3. English: 372 million
4. Arabic: 295 million
5. Hindi: 260 million
6. Bengali: 242 million
7. Portuguese:219 million
8. Russian: 154 million
9. Japanese:128 million
10. Lahnda (Pakistan): 119 million
Indeed, the United States is emerging as a vast laboratory showcasing the remarkable endurance of Spanish, no matter the political climate.
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Drawing on a critical mass of native speakers, the United States now has, by some counts, more than 50 million hispanohablantes, a greater number of Spanish speakers than Spain.
In an English-speaking superpower, the Spanish-language TV network Univision spars for top ratings with ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. The made-in-America global hit song of the summer? Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” featuring Justin Bieber.
At the same time, more than 20 states have enacted laws making English the official language, President Donald Trump won the election with a platform that included building a border wall, and his push for new limits on legal immigration would require that applicants speak English to obtain legal residency green cards.
Juan Rodríguez, 44, a Colombian immigrant who owns La Reina, a Spanish-language radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, said it was an “extremely uncertain time” for some Spanish speakers, particularly undocumented immigrants who are trying to be seen and heard less often now that the president has made deportation a priority.
“But that fear doesn’t prevent us from living our lives in Spanish,” Rodríguez added. “Iowa may be an English-only state, but it’s also our state.”
Throughout the world, the position of English as the pre-eminent language seems unchallenged. The United States projects its influence in English in realms including finance, culture, science and warfare.
But on a global level, Mandarin Chinese dwarfs English in native speakers, ranking first with 898 million, followed by Spanish with 437 million, according to Ethnologue, a compendium of the world’s languages. Then comes English with 372 million, followed by Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese and Russian.
Immigration from Latin America bolstered the use of Spanish in the United States in recent decades, but scholars say other factors are also in play, including history, the global reach of the language and the ways in which people move around throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
Authorities in parts of the United States have repeatedly argued for curbing the spread of Spanish, like the former Arizona schools chief who said all Spanish-language media should be silenced. A judge pushed back this week against that official’s drive to also ban the state’s Mexican-American studies program, saying the ban was “motivated by racial animus.”
Linguists trace some of the coveted vibrancy that Spanish now enjoys to decisions made well before Spain began colonizing the New World in 1492.
As the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes explained in “The Buried Mirror,” his book about the Hispanic world, 13th-century Spanish King Alfonso X assembled a cosmopolitan brain trust of Jewish intellectuals, Arab translators and Christian troubadours, who promoted Spanish as a language of knowledge at a time Latin and Arabic still held prestige on the Iberian Peninsula.
Alfonso and his savants forged Spanish into an exceptionally well-organized language with phonetic standards, making it relatively accessible for some learners. They are thought to have hewed to a policy of “castellano derecho” — straight or right Spanish — imbuing the language with a sense of purpose.
Even today, Spanish remains mutually intelligible around the world to a remarkable degree, with someone, say, from the Patagonian Steppe in Argentina able to hold a conversation with a visitor from Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s largest oil exporters.
Drawing on entropy, a concept from thermodynamics referring to disorder, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, the Canadian authors of a 2013 book charting the evolution of Spanish, describe the degree to which Spanish is spread geographically over a wide array of countries.
By this measure, Mandarin ranks low on the entropy scale since most of its speakers live in the same country. English boasts greater entropy, but Spanish, the majority language in more than 20 countries, ranks first, followed by Arabic.
Rivaling Spain and parts of Latin America, the United States exemplifies how the movement of people throughout the Spanish-speaking world is taking the language in new directions.
In metropolitan Los Angeles, an area with more than 4 million Spanish speakers — more than Uruguay’s entire population — linguists say that a new dialect has coalesced as different types of Spanish come into contact with one another. And in New Mexico, an influx of Mexican and Central American immigrants is nourishing and reshaping a variant of Spanish that has persisted since the 16th century.
The ways in which families use languages at the dinner table also show how Spanish is evolving.
In the Nava family, which moved to New Mexico from northern Mexico more than 20 years ago, the grandparents passionately debate in Spanish the performance of their football team, the Dallas Cowboys.
But when their adult children talk to one another, it’s in Spanglish. And the language of their grandchildren? Mainly English, with a sprinkling of Spanish words.
“Our real communication is in Spanglish,” said Cindy Nava, 29, a policy analyst at the New Mexico Legislature who arrived in the United States at the age of 7. “But we still recognize the importance of speaking Spanish correctly.”
Irking some grammarians, Spanglish is gaining ground, evident in the way characters in telenovelas are speaking, Daddy Yankee’s reggaetón lyrics or ads like the Wendy’s commercial in which sweethearts bond over bacon cheeseburgers served on buns of “pan de pretzel.”
Long before Trump was elected, the growth and durability of Spanish had caused concerns, leading to “official-language” laws that in some cases limit the use of any language other than English in government offices and documents, and in other cases are largely symbolic.
Rosalie Porter, who came to the United States from Italy as a child and is now the chairwoman of an organization seeking to end bilingual education and declare English the official language of the United States, said, “When I was an immigrant child, my language was not politically correct.”
She added: “Today it’s different.” Her group, ProEnglish, was founded by John Tanton, a Michigan doctor who started a handful of organizations seeking to restrict immigration. “Immigrants enjoy a lot more visibility” she added, emphasizing that she understood the business reasons behind the growth of Spanish-language media.
Even apart from political efforts, the continued growth of Spanish in the United States is not assured. Linguists have documented how new generations of Latinos around the country are steadily shifting to English, just as descendants of other immigrants have done.
But if the past is a guide, Spanish will continue to evolve and endure.
“In many places in the U.S., English and Spanish are in bed with each other, a contact that is both generative and exciting,” said Junot Díaz, the writer who masterfully explores the immigrant experience in the United States, largely through the travails of his Spanglish-speaking Dominican protagonist, Yunior.
“For many of us,” he went on, “Spanish is our path to love, and as history has proven no one can legislate away love.”