Coming out of the USSR could be a disorienting experience, as then- Graduate Student Extreme found out in 1979 after seven months here as a guide-interpreter on a cultural exhibit: in my first encounter with an automatic bank teller back in the States, the newfangled “ATM” took my card, scanned it and then asked if I wanted to continue our transaction (a) in English or (b) en español. What? In Spanish?!?
Who would choose a Spanish option in suburban Washington, DC? Had Zorro taken over the neighborhood? After the prolonged suspended animation of Soviet life, it was hard to resist an Extreme impulse to to look defiantly into the camera of this big-brotherish machine and ask, “Are you KIDDING, amigo?”
Flash forward a decade to 1989, when Instructor Extreme is showing the first group of Soviet high-school exchange students a popular U.S. film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), as part of their orientation: the hero drives an expensive sports car into a Chicago parking garage, where he asks the smiling but non-responsive attendant, “Do you speak English?” – only to receive the taken-aback reply “What country do you think this is?”
This gets a big laugh from the young Russians, just as it had in theaters around the States. It’s America, so people speak English, of course – always have, always will.
Wrong and wrong, it so happens. If in 1979 and 1989 there was still little doubt about Anglo-hegemony, by 1999 the party was over for a homogeneous English-only national culture – and the new millennium has seen this transformation quicken its pace.
Spanish was spoken in the Americas long before English: the Columbus trip was a Spanish project, and was followed by many more Hispanic forays north and south in the New World. While the young United States emerged as an Anglophonemajority state, it did so without adopting an official language – and does not have one today.
It does have a new fastestgrowing segment of the population, however: today every sixth U.S. citizen is Hispanic, the census bureau tells us, and three decades from now non-Hispanic whites will be a minority – a situation utterly unthreatening to such utterly American icons as Bart Simpson, whose trademark exclamation is ¡Ay, caramba! (Oh gosh!/Wow!/etc.) and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose Terminator famously wished usHasta la vista, baby! (See you later!), coining one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history.
In short, Spanish is the second most used language in the United States, spoken by some 45 million Hispanophones and six million language students, comprising the largest national Spanish-speaking community anywhere outside of Mexico. Little wonder that the 2000 U.S. presidential election saw both major candidates – the resolutely white bread/mayonnaise/Anglophone- gringos George W. Bush and Albert Gore – deliver campaign speeches in Spanish. Votes are where you find ‘em, señor.
So you are very likely to encounter Spanish and Spanish-speakers in American films, literature and on your trip to the United States – but your English textbooks haven’t factored this in yet, have they? “No problemo!” (which is actually popular pseudo-Spanish for no hay problema). Here’s Prof. Extremo’s Hispanic Starter Kit: The Top 10 Spanish Words/Phrases/Usages you’ll see/hear throughout the US – often occurring in otherwise exclusively English contexts:
1. adios [ah-dee-OHS] – goodbye
2. amigo [uh-MEE-goh], amiga [uh- MEE-guh] – friend (masc., fem.)
3. barrio [BAHR-ee-oh] – neighborhood, usually a heavily Hispanic area
4. bueno [BWE-naw] – good, all right, OK; buenos días – good morning/day
5. Comprende? [kuhm-PREN-dey] – Understand? Got it?
6. gracias [GRAH-see-uhs] – thank you
7. hombre [OM-brey] – man, guy
8. nada [NAH-duh] – nothing, zilch; de nada – you’re welcome
9. por favor [PAWR fah-VAWR] – please
10. señor [seyn-YAWR], señora [seyn- YAWR-uh], señorita [seyn-yuh- REE-tuh] – Mr., Mrs., Miss/Ms.
Hundreds of Spanish words and phrases have become dual-language terms – which is why all of the above now turn up in English dictionaries – and both the total number and their “lexical share” of the general American dialogue are growing as you’d expect: at a pace that parallels that of the Hispanic population.
So get ready to rumba, hombre. Bart Simpson’s still ahead of you!
Text by Mark H. Teeter at 11/03/2013
(Mark H. Teeter is an English teacher and translator based in Moscow)
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