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Potowski debunks myths surrounding Spanish in US

Kim Potowski, professor of Hispanic linguistics in the Hispanic and Italian studies department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, inspired laughter in of a crowd of Spanish-language students and linguists as she captured their attention with her myth-busting talk on Spanish in the United States.

“We’re going to chismear,” she began her lecture. “Let’s get some gossip going.”


In addition to her research on Spanish in the United States, Potowski studies heritage language development, language and identity, and dual immersion education. She also has written Spanish language textbooks.

Presenting five statements about Spanish in the United States, she asked the audience: “¿chisme o verdad?” True or false?

The statements were: the U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world; “U.S. Spanish” is not recognized in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española; some things that people say in U.S. Spanish are ungrammatical; “Spanglish” is a random mishmash of Spanish and English and is damaging to Spanish; and finally Spanish teachers should aim to eliminate Spanglish and have students pass for monolingual Spanish speakers.

“I hope to convince you that all five are chismes, false, and that they have important implications for working in classrooms with U.S.-raised Spanish speakers,” she said.

Beginning with the first myth, that the United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, she asked the audience to name countries with the largest Spanish-speaking population. People yelled out Mexico, Colombia, Spain, and Argentina. Potowski displayed a graph showing the highest rates.

The United States was number five on the list, with 34.8 million Spanish speakers. This number is wrong, Potowski said.


“This 34.8 million does not include 11 million undocumented Latin Americans residing in the U.S., nor does this include the 2.8 million non-Latinos, like me, who speak Spanish,” she said.

Adding those numbers together, she calculated that there are actually 48.6 million Spanish speakers in the United States.

“Where does this put us? Numero dos. The United States is the second largest population of Spanish speakers on the planet,” she said, adding, “probably the whole galaxy.”

Potowski pointed out that the U.S. Latino population is very diverse with dialectical variations.

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“It’s also growing at a substantial rate,” Potowski said, displaying a map of the United States in which the Latino population saw higher growth rates along the East Coast than along the West. She attributed this to the meat processing industries and agricultural work in the east.

“One out of four kids is of Latino origin,” Potowski added, noting that the majority of Latinos are born in the United States.

She also drew attention to high dropout rates among Hispanic students.

“This is an abysmal state of affairs,” she said, noting that some scholars have rejected the term “dropout,” which connotes a voluntary action, in favor of “push out.”

Moving onto the second myth, Potowski said that in 2012, la Real Academia Española, the official royal institution responsible for overseeing the Spanish language, accepted the word “estadounidismo” to refer to Spanish words that are used differently in the United States For example, the word “parada,” which, to a non-U.S. Spanish speaker’s ear means “stop,” means “parade” in the United States.

Other examples include “departamento,” “aplicar,” and “elegible.”

“These are all estadounidismos,” Potowski said. “We have to get to used to the fact that in the U.S., tambien, we have dialect variation.”

She further noted that every Spanish-speaking country has its own academia, including the United States.

She reminded the audience that all languages and varieties of languages have the same intrinsic value.

“It’s society that says, this one’s better than that one. Certain varieties have more prestige than others. We see this with all languages,” she said.

Drawing an analogy with British English, which she said some people perceive to have a higher status than English from the United States, Jamaica, or Ghana, Potowski considered the question of why some varieties of a language have higher status than others.

She proposed linking prestige to the number of speakers in a country or a country’s economic impact, only to reject those theories. For instance, she explained, U.S. Spanish as an example of a low-status variety in a rich, populated country.

A better explanation of varying prestige, Potowski proposed, is whether the language is spoken in its country or origin or in a country where it is spoken as a result of colonization.

“It’s based on race and ethnicity,” she said, asking the audience if it is valid to ask U.S. Spanish speakers to abandon their ways of speaking in order to be better understood elsewhere and at what point we can stop caring what other nations say about our Spanish in the United States.

“My response is, don’t worry,” she said. If you go to Spain, you will quickly pick up on the variety of Spanish spoken there.

“And how many U.S. Spanish speakers are going to be hanging out in Spain?” she added.

To bust the third myth, that U.S. Spanish is ungrammatical, Potowski contrasted three different definitions of grammar.

“Some people say U.S. Spanish is ungrammatical. What does that mean?” she asked.

Under one view, grammar is an internal, automatic system. Everyone who acquires a spoken or signed language naturally and subconsciously develops an internal grammar, or blueprint, of how their language works.

She uses Steven Pinker’s “taxicab maxim” to illustrate this idea.

“If you are driving a taxi, it is impossible to violate laws of physics,” she said. “If you are speaking a language in a way that you acquired naturally within a community of speakers, it is impossible to violate the laws of grammar.”

She explained that, under this definition of grammar, it would be inaccurate to say that a speaker of a certain language “does not have grammar.”

Under another view, grammar is explicit knowledge of terminology and rules. She noted that most native speakers do not have a good grasp of this explicit grammar.

The latter definition of grammar is prescriptivist, outlining what is preferred versus what should be avoided.

“You can’t violate the laws of physics, but you can violate the laws of a particular region,” she said, using the example of a person driving on the right side of the road in England.

Extending the analogy, Potowski argued that teachers must decide what constitutes valid traffic violations as opposed to rules that are basically irrelevant, such as the proscription of splitting an infinitive in English.

Keeping in mind that U.S. Spanish speakers are not ungrammatical when they use their community’s grammatical system, she moved on to discuss the fourth myth, that Spanglish is a damaging, random mishmash of Spanish and English.

“We see by now that this is false because they are all rule-governed and valid,” she said.

She went on to discuss four phenomena of Spanglish: code switching (alternating between languages), borrowings (words imported from English and integrated into Spanish), extensions (using “aplicar” and “pretender” to mean “apply” and “pretend”), and calques (word-for-word translation).

“I want my students in the U.S. to take pride in the way they speak Spanish,” she said. “To study and teach the rule-governed nature of U.S. Spanish is respectful.”

Potowski said that she does not like the word “Spanglish” because it suggests that this use of the language is not actually Spanish. She sees code-switching as a marker of the speaker’s bilingual identity.

“Many youth decide to abandon Spanish altogether rather than suffer from criticism of it,” she said. “If you make fun of them, they might stop speaking it.”

But there isn’t anything wrong with speaking a language influence by English, according to Potowski.

U.S. Spanish speakers, who don’t learn in the classroom, use informal Spanish. In the classrooms, students learn formal Spanish.

“I want you to question the concept of ‘incorrect’ Spanish,” she said. “Instead, talk about formal versus informal.”

She suggested using examples from English. Most students know not to write “ain’t” or “cuz” in an essay because they learned a different type of English in school.

“As someone who has only been learning formal Spanish, it’s interesting to see that what I’ve been learning in class isn’t the only way to speak the language,” Morgan Smith ’21 said.

Sponsored by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the talk, “Spanish in the United States: Myths and Realities,” took place on May 8 at 4:30 p.m. in McCormick 101.