A Demographic Look at Spanish Speakers in the U.S.

Dynamic Language | March 21, 2017


Recent estimates place the number of Spanish speakers in the U.S. at over 50 million, coming second only to Mexico. The caveat for companies trying to tap into this huge market is understanding that while Spanish speakers in the US share a common language, the subtle nuances in dialect can play a huge role. These differences are most closely tied to the speaker’s country of origin, and in the melting pot of the USA, this makes knowing the geographic distribution of Latinos by national origin hugely important. While we can group multiple nationalities under the term Latino or Hispanic, it doesn’t mean that they are all the same, and language is one of the most important aspects of their culture.

Language experts distinguish the following varieties of the Spanish spoken in the United States:

  • Mexican: as spoken along the Mexico border and throughout the southwest, from California to Texas
  • Caribbean: as spoken by Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans. Largely heard throughout the Northeastern US and Florida, especially New York City and Miami
  • Central American: as spoken by those with origins in Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Largely heard in major cities throughout California and Texas, as well as Washington DC, New York, and Miami
  • Colonial: as spoken by descendants of Spanish colonists and early Mexicans before US expansion and annexion of the US southwest and other areas (New Mexico, south Colorado and the border regions of Arizona, and Texas)

Hispanic subgroups differ by concentration as well as location. Over half of the country’s Spanish-speakers reside in California, Texas, and Florida. The Southwest is strongly Mexican and Central American, New York has high percentage of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and Miami is strongly Cuban. In fact, the nation’s Cuban population (the third biggest Hispanic origin group in the US) is also the most highly concentrated, with nearly half (48%) living in Miami-Dade County in Florida.  

So, which kind of Spanish should be used when targeting a US audience?

US Spanish is sometimes thought to be the same as Mexican Spanish, and it’s true that Mexican Spanish is becoming somewhat ubiquitous and is often used as the basis for US Spanish. This is because among the 50.7 million Hispanics in the United States, nearly two-thirds self-identify as being of Mexican origin. No other Hispanic subgroup rivals the size of this population (Puerto Ricans, the second largest subgroup, make up just 9% of the total Hispanic population). As a result, the Spanish heard within the US often leans towards Mexican. However, Mexican Spanish sounds a lot different from Cuban or Puerto Rican Spanish, which can also rightfully be considered US Spanish, with millions of speakers across the US.

When a translator is asked to translate into US Spanish for a nationwide audience, they must use a more neutral language than purely Mexican Spanish, avoiding regional influences such as slang and colloquialisms. The goal of this is to connect with immigrants and their descendants from all over the Spanish-speaking world, instead of just those from a single country of origin. This neutral approach works well for many texts, but can be more difficult with marketing materials where colloquialisms and ‘natural’ sounding language is essential.

Other features of US Spanish

Something else that’s important to consider is the undeniable influence of English on US Spanish. It is common for many US Latinos to mix Spanish and English, thereby producing Spanglish. This is the name for the mixture of English and Spanish words and phrases. Spanish speakers in the US are in general much more receptive to English words and concepts, as opposed to speakers in Latin America who understandably have less exposure to US culture.

In addition, translation and localization go beyond simply substituting English words for the Spanish equivalent. This is because a localized text is an adaptation from both linguistic AND cultural points of view. For example: you may have identified that Cuban style Spanish will be best suited to your Miami based project, but your translation provider will need to know that it’s for the US and not for Cuba. US audiences will be unfamiliar with metric measurements, so the appropriate conversions will need to be made. Currency, time, date and address formats will also have to be taken into consideration (for example, hours of operation might need to state a time zone in the US, something which wouldn’t apply to Cuba). These things are small simple details that are easily overlooked, but can make a huge difference to the translation being practical and effective, as well as natural sounding.

For the most effective and relevant translations, know and respect linguistic and cultural differences.

So what does this all mean if you are trying to communicate with Spanish speakers across the US? As US Hispanics are made up of several nationalities and cultures, they require consideration in order to determine the type of Spanish that should be used. If you’re trying to get your message across to a wide Spanish-speaking audience, US Spanish should be your variety of choice. This will help you connect with the broadest audience possible, regardless of their background. Of course, if your target community is from a certain background (such as Puerto Rico), you let your translation provider know this. But be aware: a marketing strategy solely based on Puerto Rican style Spanish could possibly alienate your audience if you chose to also execute it in non-Puerto Rican regions. Plainly speaking, a marketing campaign that works in New York may have to be tweaked to better suit the demographics of Los Angeles, but it will be worth it to achieve optimal results.{{cta(‘743ec3eb-60bf-45ab-a893-dab4575b1d00’)}}


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