We tend to think of the United States as a monolingual country, despite the English language having never actually been accorded official status by its government. Yet few people realise that there are around 60 million Spanish speakers in the US, making it the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
Admittedly a large number of these speakers consists of those who speak it as a second language, Spanish language students and undocumented immigrants from South and Central America (estimated to number around nine million).
But this is still more than Spain itself, whose population of 46 million often speaks Spanish alongside other native languages such as Basque and Catalan.
Although its southern neighbour Mexico currently has the largest number of Spanish speakers with almost 123 million, experts predict that by 2050 the United States will surpass it to become the number one Spanish-speaking country in the world.
Of course, the Spanish influence in the US goes back centuries to when navigators such as Christopher Columbus, under the auspices of Spain’s royal family and wealthy merchants, first explored the so-called 'New World'.
Territories of what is now the US were once colonised by the Spanish, which is why so many places names in the US, from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, have Spanish names.
In fact, the Spanish were the original European colonisers of the US, setting up a colony in St Augustine, Florida in 1565, 42 years before the English set up their first permanent US settlement in Jamestown on the north-east coast.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 signalled the end of the Empire, and saw Spanish influence in North America recede. However a steady flow of immigrants from Central American countries, Mexico and South America has ensured that the Spanish language has always been prevalent in certain parts of the US throughout the past century.
Hispanics a growing demographic
As well as the growing numbers of people speaking Spanish in the US, there is a growing Hispanic middle-class whose spending power cannot be ignored.
Even candidates running for political office release Spanish-language ads in an attempt to connect with Hispanic voters.
In New York alone, where there is a large Latino population, there are thought to be around 1.9 million Spanish speakers – around a quarter of the city’s population.
The US is also home to five Spanish-language major TV networks and there are hundreds of print titles in the Spanish-language. These include the long-running New York-based daily newspaper El Diario Nueva York, founded in 1913, and La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the US and the most widely read paper in California after the Los Angeles Times.
But which Spanish do you choose?
There is as yet no such thing as American-Spanish. Cubano, the Spanish spoken by Cuban immigrants living in Florida, is different to the Mexican-Spanish spoken in the US states bordering Mexico, while even a country as big as Mexico features several different dialects.
To outsiders, the accents of nearby Spanish-speaking countries in northern Central America, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, might sound similar to those spoken in Mexico, while the Spanish spoken by Puerto Ricans living in New York is different again.
Thankfully most varieties of Spanish are mutually intelligible. But when you consider that over half of the Spanish speakers in the US are of Mexican origin and it is the dialect that is taught in US schools, then this is probably the best option for companies that want to do business in Spanish-speaking areas of the US.
"No hablan Espanol" in the north-west
Finally, be aware that Spanish speakers are still a rarity in some parts of the US such as the sparsely populated north-west states of North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
Indeed the BBC reported in 2018 that two Spanish-speaking US-Citizens were detained by police after speaking the language in the state of Montana as it was thought of as highly suspicious.
The states with the biggest Latino and Hispanic populations are:
- New Mexico – 48.5%
- Texas – 39.1%
- California – 38.9 %
- Arizona – 30.9%
- Nevada – 28.5%
So, if you are going to expand into the US market and you're looking at specific areas, check out the demographics of the area first.
Since the US has the world’s largest economy and the Hispanic population in the US is projected to double by 2050, this makes Spanish enormously important.
If you are keen to start your business in the US, Spanish should definitely be one of your chosen languages.