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Is Spanish a foreign language?

April 25th, 2007 (01:01 pm)
current mood: pondering

I saw a reference to "a foreign language, preferably Spanish", and got to thinking: is Spanish really a foreign language? (Relative to the US, that is.) I did some digging for numbers. If you define "primary speaker" as someone who speaks Spanish at home, the US may be in third place in population of primary speakers, behind Mexico and Spain. (Edit: I left out Colómbia and Argentina.) Mexico has about 100 million people, but 6% of them speak an indigenous language; so call that 94M primary speakers. Spain has 44M people, but there are a few regional languages (plus dialects of Spanish, but let's ignore them); with 4M speaking Catalan, 3M for Galician, and 700K for Basque, Spain seems to have only about 36M primary speakers. (This is assuming that the people who speak regional languages are not primary speakers of Spanish; they learn the regional language at home, and Spanish to function in national society. That assumption is kind of weak, but it's a reasonable first approximation.)

Meanwhile, the US has 32M primary speakers. If Hugo Chavez gives a speech about the US, and all of the primary Spanish speakers in the US and Venezuela listen to it, about 60% of the audience will be in the US.

With those kinds of numbers, Spanish is no longer a language you learn to talk to foreigners; it's a major tool for functioning smoothly in the US.

(Of course, all these numbers are hideously approximate, were taken from quick skims of Wikipedia and various sources that showed up on Google, and were taken from measurements up to 10 years apart. It's something to think about, though.)

Comments

Posted by: JT (learnteach)
Posted at: April 25th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
Ah,

In the context of Universities, only "English" is a native language. This gets really complicated at a school like the one where I teach at. But, when a university looks at the transcripts they'll see "Spanish" as the foreign language taken.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: April 25th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Ah,

Sure. I'm not talking about how it's treated academically (for school purposes, what's important is not that you learned a foreign language; what's important is that you learned a second language). But, socially, calling Spanish a foreign language ignores the fact that it's an important language domestically.

Posted by: Siderea (siderea)
Posted at: April 25th, 2007 07:33 pm (UTC)

Spain has 44M people, but there are a few regional languages (plus dialects of Spanish, but let's ignore them); with 4M speaking Catalan, 3M for Galician, and 700K for Basque, Spain seems to have only about 36M primary speakers. (This is assuming that the people who speak regional languages are not primary speakers of Spanish; they learn the regional language at home, and Spanish to function in national society. That assumption is kind of weak, but it's a reasonable first approximation.)

Not in Spain, it's not (at least according to my sister, who studied Spanish at the U. of Barcelona): there are essentially no primary speakers of Catalan or Euskara (Basque). (Don't know about Galician, but considering the social forces which repressed Catalan and Euskara (Spanish fascist nationalism), it doesn't seem likely that they escaped.) Catalan has essentially skipped a generation, with the younger generation learning their Catalan in schools (whatever the Catalan equivalent of Calendretas are) to assert their ethnic identity.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: April 26th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC)
Interesting, thanks.

I didn't know that. Back in college, I knew (slightly) a guy who self-identified as speaking Catalan, rather than Spanish; this was 1988, so he must have been one of the first wave.

I suppose it makes sense that a fascist state would go for linguistic uniformity. If you're justifying yourself on an ideology of "we must all pull together to prosper", then it follows that we must all be able to speak together.

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Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: April 26th, 2007 01:30 pm (UTC)
Re: It depends on what you are trying to measure.

For the purpose of whether you should try "Hola" instead of "Hi" on the street,

No, more like whether there's a large subculture in the country where you have to speak Spanish to fit in.

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Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: April 26th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC)
Re: It depends on what you are trying to measure.

There are plenty of languages that have large subcultures associated with them in the US.

But Spanish is by far the largest; 10% of the population speaks Spanish at home. There are lots of Polish speakers in Chicago, but they're isolated; across the country, they make up only 1/4% of the population. "People who speak Spanish at home", as a category, is more comparable to "people of African descent".

The rate at which the newer generations are losing the language is high.

That's true—Wikipedia puts it at 50% gone after one generation, and 2/3 after two. (They don't cite sources, though.)

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Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: April 26th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)
Re: So what should be done?---Cluebat

When you think about it, it's kind of weird that you have to speak English to become a citizen, but not to vote.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: April 26th, 2007 06:06 pm (UTC)
Re: So what should be done?

I'm not sure what should be done; I'm mostly just thinking aloud here. I do know, though, that I'm going to start reading to my kids in Spanish. (I've read them a couple of books in French, as my dad did with my brother and me; but Spanish is more useful. Besides, my French is atrocious.)

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