Humanities, Politics & society, Research

Berkeley Voices: A linguist’s quest to legitimize U.S. Spanish

The U.S. is a Spanish-speaking country, and it's time for us to embrace that, says UC Berkeley sociolinguist Justin Davidson.

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First-year UC Berkeley student Natalie walks on Berkeley's campus with her mom and younger brother.
First-year UC Berkeley student Natalie Araujo (right) walks with her mom and younger brother on Berkeley’s campus. She grew up speaking Spanish with her family in California’s Coachella Valley.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Spanish speakers in the United States, among linguists and non-linguists, have been denigrated for the way that they speak, says UC Berkeley sociolinguist Justin Davidson. It’s part of the country’s long history of scrutiny of non-monolingual English speakers, he says, dating back to the early 20th century.

“It’s groups in power, its discourses and collective communities, that sort of socially determine what kinds of words and what kinds of language are acceptable and unacceptable,” says Davidson, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

But the U.S. is a Spanish-speaking country, he says, and it’s time for us as a nation to embrace U.S. Spanish as a legitimate language variety.

This is the first episode of a three-part series with Davidson about language in the U.S. Listen to other two episodes: “A language divided” and “One brain, two languages.”

Read a written version of the podcast episode:

There’s this nonprofit that was founded in New York City in 1973 called the North American Academy of the Spanish Language. It’s made up of philologists — people who study language — including writers, poets, professors and educators.

“And they put out documents, literature, books about Spanish in the U.S. and trying to effectively fix it,” said Justin Davidson, an associate professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

“One of their books is called Hablando bien se entiende la gente, which is, like, ‘Speaking well, we can understand one other.’ And the entire book is just listing after listing after listing of vocabulary and grammatical structures that they say are incorrect, bad and need to be fixed,” said Davidson.

“Spanish speakers in the U.S., among linguists and non-linguists, have been denigrated for the way that they speak,” he continued. “The kind of Spanish that obviously has influences from English, for example, has never been given any real validity.”

Justin Davidson
Justin Davidson is an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Berkeley.

Jen Siska/UC Berkeley

A sociolinguist, Davidson studies language variation and language change over time. In collaboration with Hispanic linguists at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz, Davidson is working on a project, called Multilingual Hispanic Speech in California. It’s funded by a grant from the University of California Office of the President.

For the project, the linguists are conducting interviews with Spanish-English bilinguals across California — the state with the most Spanish speakers in the U.S. Each of the researchers will collect 200 interviews of people speaking at least 35 minutes of Spanish and 35 minutes of English.

“So it’s one of the relatively few corpora out there that will be truly bilingual, that will be representative of both languages of this population,” Davidson said.

“And the idea is,” he continued, “that we can use it and study it to show that the Spanish of the U.S. and the English of Spanish speakers has grammar, is systematic and has rules, so to speak, that it follows, that it’s no different from any other version of English or Spanish that exists. And in so doing, we hope to legitimize it and help promote the thinking that the United States is a Spanish-speaking country, and to have that not sort of feel weird to hear.”

According to a 2015 study published by the Instituto Cervantes, the U.S. is now the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico. The report says there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the country, plus 11.6 million more who are bilingual, mostly the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“There are more Spanish speakers in the United States than in Spain, than in Colombia, than in Venezuela, than in any other country you can think of,” said Davidson. “We are the second most Spanish-speaking country in the world. And so, you know, on a national discourse level it doesn’t feel that way. But I’m hoping, with projects like this, to try and change that over time.”

So what makes U.S. Spanish unique? What are some words that are different from the varieties of Spanish they speak in other countries?

“In most Spanishes of the world, the word for pillow is almohada,” Davidson said. “And historically, that’s borrowing from Arabic. Spanish has plenty of words that originally were not sourced from Latin, but were borrowed into the language due to contact with bilingual, multilingual populations.

“So nowadays, if a speaker anywhere in the world says almohada, there’s no reaction of, like, ‘That’s bad Spanish. Don’t speak Arabic.’ It’s part of the language, and no one bats an eye. And in fact, unless you’re a linguist that looks at the history of language, most Spanish-speaking people in the world wouldn’t necessarily even know that almohada is from Arabic.

“So then you turn to a case like parquear, to park; or troca, a truck; or lonche, lunch. Those are words that are common in U.S. Spanish, and they clearly have influence from English. And if you write any of those words on the AP exam in Spanish, if you use those words in public, you can be told, ‘That’s not the right word. You can’t say it that way.’

“The North American Academy of Spanish has those words in their book, specifically that these are what are called barbarisms, like contamination, pollution, that need to be excised from the language.

“And it’s so hypocritical and arbitrary — what words, what features from language, are we all OK with, and which ones do we say are terrible and examples of poor language?”

The U.S. has a long history of scrutiny of non-monolingual English speakers, said Davidson, dating back to the early 20th century.

“We have census data showing that, for example, in the 1910 to 1915 period, the number of deportations of immigrants trying to get into the United States, like, went up 300 to 500%,” he said. “And the records that we have on why all these people were being not let into the United States is based on them not speaking English.”

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which mandated that federally funded programs couldn’t discriminate based on social characteristics, like race, color and nationality.

“But language was not in there,” said Davidson. “So at no point did the United States require that we do anything really for anyone that doesn’t speak English.

“And so it wasn’t until 1968 that the Bilingual Education Act was passed by Congress, and that established federal funding for bilingual education, but it didn’t make it mandatory. Unless a particular school district or set of administrators felt strongly about implementing bilingual education and trying to do something for students that didn’t speak English, there was no enforcing them to.”

Non-native English speakers were often placed in special education programs. And for a long time, IQ tests in the U.S. were done only in English.

“It wasn’t until a court case that went up to the Supreme Court in 1970, Diana v. State Board of Education,” he said. “And this was here in California. It wasn’t until 1970 that the law was changed, that you cannot give an IQ test to a person, to establish some sort of cognitive defect, you can’t give that to them in their non-native language.

“So this is just a few of many, many examples of a history in this country of effectively monolingualism and the promotion of English over any other language.

“The kind of Spanish that has existed for centuries in the United States is constantly compared to, quote unquote, ‘real’ Spanish-speaking countries, right? Countries like Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Colombia — pick any of the countries that have their national language as Spanish.

“U.S. Spanish has never really been considered in public discourse to be a Spanish-speaking country. It’s an English-speaking country and then there are immigrants that may have other languages.

“And so the question I ask, that Hispanic linguists more and more, especially sociolinguists, are asking is: Why does the Spanish of the United States that’s been here for centuries need to be modeled off the Spanish of Mexico or any other country? Why is our Spanish not good enough to just exist as it is?”

Sociolinguists, said Davidson, understand language not as good or bad, but that any piece of language that a person speaks or signs is natural and normal.

“The social evaluation of language is its own dynamic,” he said. “But strictly speaking for me, as a sociolinguist, there is nothing incorrect about anyone’s language. It’s just a question of social dynamics.

“It’s groups in power, its discourses and collective communities, that sort of socially determine what kinds of words and what kinds of language are acceptable and unacceptable. And so, all of that is subject to change, right?”