Hispanic Heritage: Why Spanish Matters

La Mezquita, or Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, southern Spain, is considered one of the treasures of humanity and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its majestic geometry embodies the encounter of Africa, Europe, and Asia that unfolded in complex ways in medieval Spain and helped shape the modern Spanish language.

La Mezquita, or Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, southern Spain, is considered one of the treasures of humanity and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its majestic geometry embodies the encounter of Africa, Europe, and Asia that unfolded in complex ways in medieval Spain and helped shape the modern Spanish language.

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Spanish dominates foreign-language study in the US: 865,000 college students took it in 2009,  followed by French (216,000) and German (96,000). Spanish enrolls more than all other world languages combined. In K-12 public schools, the dominance is even greater: 2007-08 figures showed 6.4 million taking Spanish (72% of all foreign-language enrollment), French a very distant second at 1.3 million. Why is the “language of Cervantes” so widely studied (if not always mastered)? Here are some of the more common reasons:

A large and growing population. With around 40 million Spanish speakers, the US is exceeded only by Mexico, Spain, Colombia, and perhaps Argentina. Many see Census numbers alone as proving the importance of Spanish and making it “the language to learn.” Not to mention geography: the US shares a border with the most populous Hispanic country in the world, and millions more Spanish speakers live in the Caribbean, not far from Florida’s shores.

Community service.  Idealistic young people in substantial numbers pursue Spanish to help serve immigrant community needs such as literacy, health, legal aid, and education, or in missions of faith. In turn, those interactions often become an arena for “service learning” where classroom knowledge of the language is put to the enriching test of real-life experience.

It’s “easy”?  The perception of Spanish as easy to learn is widespread; many college students see it as a sort of “shortcut” to meeting language requirements.  It’s a half-truth: Spanish really is a marvel of grammatical and phonetic consistency, due in part to Nebrija’s 1492 Grammar (one of the earliest for a modern language) and the 1713 founding of the Royal Spanish Academy. But true mastery of the language is anything but easy to attain.

It’s “funny”? Fascination with “Spanglish”— incorporation of English words and patterns into immigrants’ spoken Spanish—treats as odd or unusual what is actually the natural result of any widespread contact between populations speaking different languages. In any case, this linguistic resource hardly amounts to a dialect, much less a separate language. Somewhat different is the popularity of “Faux Spanish”: dubious words and phrases such as “no problemo”, “perfectamundo”, “mucho macho”, or “el grande jefe” convey a playful, at times mocking, attitude towards Spanish and its speakers.

Language of labor. Many North Americans associate Spanish with poorer, often undocumented, immigrants—an understandable perception based on current media and political obsessions, and, for some people, personal experience.  Some knowledge of Spanish is useful to communicate with, and manage, laborers, in this view, but it’s not really to be considered a “serious language: the latter was actually the message a prestigious private school in Virginia explicitly placed on its website in the recent past, with the boast that for reasons of academic rigor, they proudly offered only French as a foreign language. The same unexamined premise was shared by the Amarillo, Texas family-court judge who infamously, in 1995, ordered a Mexican-born immigrant mother to stop speaking Spanish to her five-year-old daughter, on the grounds that using that language constituted “child abuse” and would condemn the girl to a future “as a housemaid.” (In each case, both school and judge, there was a later about-face in reaction to an avalanche of public criticism.)

A “quaint” culture.  It’s common to hear people express love for the culture, often in terms of salsa (cuisine) and salsa (music and dance).  Adjectives such as “colorful,” “quaint,” simple”, and “exotic” paint a Hispanic world of peasants, rural and village life, “traditions”. This view can unintentionally place Hispanic or Latino people in a primitive past, even outside of time. An associated perception sees Spanish as the language of places college students on Spring break and other tourists go to run wild, places—many of them—that the United States once conquered, occupied, or dominated. Indeed, this is the other side of the coin from language-of-manual-laborers. A long history of power relations has planted such deeply-rooted habits of thought in the dominant culture of this society.

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The reasons sampled above present quite a mix. Sincere interest in other cultures is there, as are a calling to service, faith, and love of justice. So, too, in some measure and in certain contexts, are simplistic romanticization, patronizing superiority, and power agendas.

There are also some other, crucial reasons why Spanish matters and why learning it is one of the best things you can do in the early 21st century:

A global language. Spanish now ranks second in the world in number of native speakers, with over 410 million (approximately 1 in 20 members of the human race), trailing only Mandarin Chinese. English, with over 360 million worldwide, is in third place, right behind (though it vaults into second place when we add the number of people who speak it as a second language). Portuguese, which I like to call Spanish’s “fraternal twin”—English has no such closely-related living language—has over 220 million native speakers, mostly in rising economic powerhouse Brazil; Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese to a considerable degree and have an automatic head-start in learning that language.

Economic power. The US’s 53 million Hispanics (1 in 6 people!) spend some $1.3 trillion annually; Spanish-speaking countries’ combined GDP, $3.4 trillion, equals industrial giant Germany (add sister nation Brazil, and the resulting grand total of $5.9 trillion matches Japan). There are countless markets to sell to, jobs to be done, and texts to be translated, by people who have significant mastery of the language (a mastery inseparable, in the end, from cultural understanding).

A world civilization.  Every language bears witness to a people’s experience and creativity.  For Spanish that includes ancient Iberian, Celtic, Roman, and Germanic legacies, as well as the unique Rom or “Gypsy’ presence (Spanish gitanos, a word derived from egiptanos and bearing witness to the passage of part of that wandering people into North Africa via Egypt); a near-millennium of Christian-Jewish-Muslim coexistence (albeit later shattered by crusades, expulsions, and inquisition); the world’s first global empire; and, today, twenty multicultural societies of indigenous, African, European, and Asian heritage.  Just one example of the cultural richness that Spanish embodies: in societies viewed as overwhelmingly Christian, one says ¡Ojalá! (Arabic Inshallah) for “I hope so!”

The Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Likely the world’s best-known and loved work of fiction, Cervantes’s Don Quixote crowns a literature that includes the brilliant 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; the greatest of modern stylists, José Martí, who died fighting for Cuban independence; Chile’s beloved poet Pablo Neruda, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges with his metaphysical mysteries, and master storytellers of our lifetime like Colombia’s García Márquez, Peru’s Vargas Llosa, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Chile’s Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez of the Dominican Republic.

Recovering one’s own heritage.  Significant numbers of US-born (or raised) Hispanics are English-dominant, even monolingual (note that the Hispanic/Latino population, at 53 million, is larger than the Spanish-speaking figure of roughly 40 million). For “heritage learners,” as the language-teaching profession calls those who grew up with significant home exposure to Spanish, learning it can be a powerful reclaiming of family and cultural legacy.

An outlook on life.  To master Spanish is to learn another way of being in the world, a peculiar combination of seriousness, humor, hierarchy, and dignity. The native English speaker learns to tuck away that ever-present, imperial pronoun “I” (the only one English capitalizes!), taking on a more sparingly-used yo: Spanish embodies a certain modesty.  One learns words for relationships and customs English can’t name: compadre or comadre if you’re their kid’s godparent, tocayo if you share the same name, sobremesa for staying at the table talking after a meal.  Saying “Nos vemos mañana” (See you tomorrow), one often adds “…si Dios quiere” (God willing): a small linguistic bow to the Deity, or simply to life’s unknowns. There are many valid reasons to learn Spanish; it’s fine as preparation for a Cancun vacation or to improve a company’s HR.  But recognizing Spanish as a global economic force, a major world literature, and an avenue for genuine intercultural fluency offers a range of other motivations for a pursuit that can turn out to be be mind-expanding, even life-changing.

Copyright ©2013 by Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this article was published by The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) on Fri., Sep. 27, 2013. Pablo J. Davis received his graduate training in Latin American History at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities, and is a longtime professionally certified translator and interpreter, as well as trainer in those fields as well as in intercultural awareness and skills (www.interfluency.com). He is currently studying law as a member of the Class of 2017 at the University of Memphis Law School

About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: interfluency.com/testimonials.html) The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

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