Did you know that the U.S. has no official language?
That’s right—not even English!
America may not lead the world in bilingual education—only 25 percent of Americans can hold a conversation in a second language. But that doesn’t change the fact that America is a very linguistically diverse country. A 2015 report found at least 350 distinct languages spoken within U.S. borders.
And there’s a good chance the first one you’re thinking of is Spanish.
Spanish has a long and important history in the U.S. In fact, Spanish speakers’ language and heritage have been impacting U.S. history and culture since before the U.S. was even a country.
This relationship can even impact your own Spanish language studies.
Ever get sick of staring at your textbook? Frustrated you can’t just pick up, move to Madrid and finally learn Spanish once and for all? Getting acquainted with the exciting (and growing!) Spanish culture and dialects right in your own backyard can light a new fire under your language studies.
Read on for some fascinating and little-known facts about the past, present and future of Spanish in the U.S.
7 Fascinating Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Spanish in the USA
Before we dive into our facts, we’ve got a tip for the Spanish culture and language lovers out there.
If discovering Spanish culture is your kind of thing, you’ll also enjoy studying the language through authentic Spanish resources. FluentU is a fun, personalized option where you’ll discover real-world Spanish videos—like TV shows, music videos, inspiring talks and much more.
Each video is organized by level and comes with interactive captions, flashcards and exercises. It’s an entertaining but effective way to build your skills, all while absorbing native speech and learning about many different regions of the Spanish-speaking world.
1. Spanish was the first European language spoken on modern U.S. territory.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine stirred up controversy when he stated that Spanish was the first European language spoken on U.S. territory.
But, Kaine’s facts are correct.
The Spanish language first came to the U.S. in 1513, when the explorer Juan Ponce de León came ashore in present-day Florida. He returned in 1520 for a second voyage.
In fact, the Spanish were also responsible for the first settlement on what’s now the U.S.: the city of St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565. This settlement predated the British lost colony of Roanoake by decades.
English may now predominate in most parts of the U.S., but Spanish has been around for much longer.
2. California’s first constitution was published in English and Spanish.
Until the Mexican-American war, a large part of California was Mexican territory. This means that well into the 19th century there was a huge population of Spanish speakers in the territory.
So, when California drafted its first constitution in 1849, they wrote it in both English and Spanish. They even designated an “official translator” for the job: William Edward Petty Hartnell. In fact, the constitution included an article requiring all official state documents to be published in both English and Spanish.
However, the state’s official bilingualism was short-lived.
In 1855, English became the official language of primary school education. And in 1879, despite spirited debate, the renewed constitution didn’t uphold Spanish language rights.
3. Six U.S. state names have Spanish-language origins.
Given the long history of Spanish speakers in U.S. territory, it’s not surprising that several U.S. states adopted names derived from Spanish. A Mental Floss article identifies six states that have Spanish-derived names:
- Arizona: Scholars aren’t clear on exactly where the name Arizona comes from. Some maintain that it’s from the Basque aritz onak (“good oak”). Others believe that it came from the Spanish word Arizonac, which itself comes from a native American word meaning “having a little spring.”
Still others claim that it comes from the Spanish zona árida (arid zone).
- California: California is the name of a fictional paradise created by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo in his novel “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (“The Adventures of Esplandián“).
- Colorado: Colorado is a Spanish false friend. Although it looks like the English word “colored,” it actually means “bright red.”
Spanish explorers named the Río Colorado (Colorado River) after its red waters. Later, the name Colorado was adopted for the entire territory.
- Florida: When Juan Ponce de León landed on the shores of Florida, he noticed the area’s abundant plant life. Thus, he gave the territory the name Florida (Flowery).
- Montana: This state name comes from the Spanish montaña (mountain) due to the state’s many mountain ranges. However, the origin of its usage is unknown.
- Nevada: The Spanish word nevada means “snowfall.” It was first used as a name for the Sierra Nevada (literally, “snow-covered mountain range”) and later was applied to the whole state.
Bonus: the name Utah may have come from the word ute, which the Spanish used to refer to the region’s indigenous population. And the name Texas is a hispanicization of the indigenous word teysha, a greeting used by many indigenous communities before the arrival of the Spanish.
4. Linguists have identified many different Spanish dialects throughout the U.S.
If you’ve lived or traveled in the U.S., you’ve surely noticed the many different English dialects that exist within the country. Northeastern English, for example, has totally different slang than the English in the Deep South or the Midwest.
But did you know that the same is true of Spanish in the U.S.?
The Spanish spoken across the country varies widely by region. And although recent immigration has something to do with this (for example, the prevalence of Cuban Spanish in Miami), some of these regional variations can be traced to 16th and 17th century migration patterns.
For instance, the Spanish spoken in Colorado contains certain elements that are related to the colonial-era Spanish spoken in the region.
5. In 2017, “Despacito” became the first Spanish-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since the “Macarena” in 1996.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard the wildly popular song “Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. “Despacito” became the most-streamed song of all time and a remix featuring Justin Bieber generated popularity in the U.S.
In May 2017, “Despacito” reached the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first Spanish-language song to do so in over a decade.
6. A majority of second-generation Latinos in the U.S. speak Spanglish “some” or “most” of the time.
“Spanglish” refers to the mixing of English and Spanish by bilingual people. Spanglish takes many forms, such as the insertion of Spanish phrases into English speech or the use of Anglicisms or English loan-words in Spanish speech.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of young second-generation Hispanic Americans speak Spanglish “some of the time,” and more than 25 percent speak it “most of the time.”
Although some academics might see Spanglish as a “corruption” of proper Spanish, many young Latinos are proud of Spanglish and embrace it as part of their bilingual, multicultural identity.
7. Around 2050, the U.S. may become the largest Spanish-speaking nation on earth.
The Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. is on the rise.
This is partially due to an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from central and south America, and partially due to the prevalence of Spanish-language education in U.S. primary and secondary schools.
As of 2015, the U.S. had 41 million native Spanish speakers, plus 11.6 million bilingual Spanish speakers. Currently, the only country with a larger Spanish-speaking population is Mexico, at 121 million.
A report from the U.S. Census office predicted that by 2050 the U.S. would have 138 million Spanish speakers, the largest population anywhere on the planet.
If you’re learning Spanish in the U.S., you’re clearly in good company! The Spanish language has a long history here and it’s certainly not going away anytime soon. As Spanish music and culture become more prevalent in the U.S., and as the number of Spanish-speakers continues to grow, the language will become an even greater asset.
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