Murals on an underpass on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Barrio Logan. Photo by Chris Stone
Murals on an underpass on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Barrio Logan. Photo by Chris Stone

As the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking country, the United States is known for it’s rich Spanish language culture, which is particularly prominent in border cities like San Diego. With a Hispanic population of around 30%, San Diego ranks as the seventh most bilingual city in America. And the profound impact of the language is demonstrated in everyday interactions here. 

For instance, it’s common to find signs in public places that display both Spanish and English versions. Additionally, phone systems often provide callers with options between English and Spanish. These observations have made me realize the growing presence of Spanish as a de facto second language in the United States, highlighting the contrasting level of language accommodations compared to other countries. 

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Even within Spanish-speaking communities, the perception of the Spanish language has shifted among second and third-generation Latinos. In the past, there was pressure for Latino immigrants to prioritize English and abandon their native language due to social stigma. 

However, there is now a powerful resurgence of pride in speaking Spanish, evident in the success of artists like Bad Bunny and J Balvin. Despite being fluent in English, they both release music in Spanish and refuse to cater solely to an English-speaking audience. Their rise to stardom in the U.S. music industry showcases the changing attitude towards language in America.

Despite these accommodations and some social progress, language barriers remain divisive between English and Spanish-speaking communities. 

In education, the language divide creates an unequal playing field, denying Spanish-speaking students the same access to resources and opportunities enjoyed by their English-speaking peers. For example, many schools predominantly use English for instructional materials and classroom discussions.

This poses challenges for Spanish-speaking students who lack fluency in English, as they face difficulties comprehending lessons and actively engaging in class activities. As a result, they may fall behind academically, miss out on crucial information, and have limited opportunities for academic and extracurricular growth.

Turning our attention to healthcare, patients with limited English proficiency often face obstacles in receiving appropriate medical care. Miscommunication leading to misdiagnosis is a big issue; every nine minutes, someone in a U.S. hospital dies due to a medical diagnosis that was wrong or delayed. According to one study, 25 million Spanish speakers receive about a third less health care than other Americans. 

Actively striving to bridge the gap fosters a society that values and embraces linguistic diversity, ensuring equal opportunities for everyone to flourish. For example, Spanish proficiency can enhance job prospects, connect diverse colleagues, and aid in high-stakes fields like law and medicine, where communicating with clients or patients in their native language, even at a basic level, establishes trust and rapport, leading to more effective collaboration. 

Furthermore, effective communication with Spanish-speaking visitors is vital in San Diego’s vibrant tourism industry. For example, when a hotel receptionist struggles to communicate with a Spanish-speaking tourist, it can create a negative experience and perception. By prioritizing bilingual staff and language assistance services, the city creates a welcoming environment that highlights its diversity and enhances the tourist experience.

Don’t let the initial self-consciousness and limited communication skills hold you back from embracing its power. Whether you’re joining lively conversations at a Mexican cantina or engaging with native Spanish speakers, your willingness to try will be met with enthusiasm and genuine appreciation. 

Remember, it’s not about being fluent or perfect right from the start. It’s about the willingness to try, learn, and embrace new experiences and a better society. Learning Spanish unlocks countless benefits that can bridge the language divide and transform various aspects of culture.

From revolutionizing healthcare to fostering a more equitable education system and fueling a robust job market, the Spanish language has the incredible potential to shape and elevate multiple areas and open many doors.

Dan Berges is managing director of the Berges Institute, an online resource for learning Spanish.