Sociolinguistic analysis of Mexican-American bilingualism: Spanglish as a sociocultural phenomenon

by Judyta Pawliszko (Author)
©2020 Monographs 282 Pages


The main purpose of the book is to describe the two linguistic-cultural phenomena arising from mass emigration of Mexicans to Los Angeles: Spanish-English bilingualism and Spanglish. The main thesis of the research is the correlation between Spanish-English bilingualism and Spanglish. As public opinion deemed Spanglish as a blocker for linguistic advancement or degraded Spanish, it is actually a method of enhancing the linguistic system. That is why, not only does the research contest the use of such terms, but it also argues that bilingualism is a much more compound and adequate term as well as an analytic framework for the study of bilingual productions. Spanglish should be understood as a form of bilingualism, a hybrid enriching the linguistic system.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Rationale for the topic
  • Aims and scope
  • Methodology and subjects
  • Chapter 1 Bilingualism
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 First/primary language – second/other language
  • 1.2 The scholarly concept of bilingualism
  • 1.3 Typology of bilingualism
  • 1.4 Diglossia and bilingualism
  • 1.5 Research on bilingualism
  • 1.6 Two languages – two worlds?
  • Summary
  • Chapter 2 Bilingual Speech Characteristics
  • Introduction
  • 2.1 Interference
  • 2.2 Borrowings
  • 2.3 Code-switching
  • Summary
  • Chapter 3 Spanglish Development
  • Introduction
  • 3.1 Assumptions behind Spanglish
  • 3.2 Types of Spanglish
  • 3.3 The linguistic features of Spanglish
  • 3.4 Hybrid nature of Spanglish
  • 3.5 Promoting Spanglish
  • Summary
  • Chapter 4 Mexican Immigrants in Los Angeles
  • Introduction
  • 4.1 Historical panorama of Mexican immigration to the USA
  • 4.2 Geographical distribution
  • 4.3 Characteristic of the surveyed diaspora
  • 4.4 Linguistic situation of Mexicans in Los Angeles
  • 4.5 Ethnic identity and cultural situation of Mexicans in Los Angeles
  • 4.5.1 Research design
  • 4.5.2 Data analysis
  • Summary
  • Chapter 5 Data Analysis
  • Introduction
  • 5.1 Social view of bilingualism and Spanglish
  • 5.2 Individual bilingualism
  • 5.3 Mexican-American immigrants’ speech characteristics
  • 5.3.1 Interference
  • 5.3.2 Borrowings
  • Thematic classification of borrowings
  • Quotations
  • Phonological adaptation
  • Morphological adaptation
  • 5.3.3 Code-switching
  • Summary
  • Conclusions
  • Appendices
  • Appendix 1 Questionnaire for monolingual and bilingual speakers
  • Appendix 2 Questionnaire for bilingual immigrants
  • Appendix 3 A set of questions used in the examination of a case study
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • References


Rationale for the topic

In 1942 Spanish settlers first arrived on the South American mainland, in an area known nowadays as a part of the southern United States, and the first stable Spanish-English interactions also occurred in these regions. Currently, with upwards of 35 million native speakers, Spanish is the de facto second linguistic system of the United States. It is also the first language of many regions, and thus the United States is on the verge of being the world’s fourth-largest Spanish-speaking nation.

The fact that, apart from speaking Spanish and English, Mexicans residing in America typically exhibit a wide spectrum of language-contact phenomena, has led many observers, both locally and abroad, to postulate the rise of a new creation stemming from this sustained bilingual contact. Having been referred to by many expressions, the one name that is commonly recognised is Spanglish; a word whose very morphology connotes not only mixture, hybridity, but also, to the most cynical, illegitimate birth.

Yet, the above raises interesting questions: What exactly is Spanglish? Does it really exist? Can the thousands of speakers worldwide using the term with conviction, albeit with an extensive variety of connotations, describe a non-existent entity? Indeed, like the investigation of family values, democracy, and national security, the notion of Spanglish has become a deeply-rooted cultural concept. Being highly charged with emotion, it eludes a widely accepted definition. Taking into consideration the fact that neither the word itself nor the concept of a third language resulting from the head-on collision between English and Spanish is likely to disappear anytime soon, it is crucial that thoughtful empirical research complement the popular chaos embracing facets of mass hysteria, conspiracy theories, and media feeding turmoil, while attempting not efficiently to elucidate the actual linguistic situation of Hispanic bilinguals.

Abroad, the situation of the Spanish language in America is frequently entangled with anti-imperialistic political attitudes which assume as axiomatic that any linguistic system and culture incoming to the United States will be overwhelmed by Anglo-American values, and thus, denatured, deteriorated, contaminated, and eventually assimilated by the mainstream juggernaut. Yet, coming largely from the literacy circle as well as the political left, defenders of linguistic mixture and borrowings have expressed frustration in attempts to present their views to mainstream educators, journalists or community leaders. ←13 | 14→Although nearly every Spanish speaker in America and throughout the world, together with the majority of Anglo-Americans, identify the word Spanglish, there is a lack of consensus on its linguistic and social correlates. However, one shared thread which runs through most accounts of Spanglish may be identified: it is the idea that most Latinos in America, Puerto Rico and border areas of Mexico use this language rather than real Spanish. Indeed, a questionnaire of current statements will display the diversity of explanations, perspectives, and approaches regarding the linguistic behaviour of the world’s fourth-largest Spanishspeaking community.

To begin with, dictionary definitions, typically the most neutral, widely acknowledged, and carefully investigated, should be taken into consideration. Nonetheless, this first encounter yields dramatically inconsistent results. As stated in the Oxford English Dictionary (qtd in Gardner-Chloros 2009:23), Spanglish is “a type of Spanish contaminated by English words and forms of expression, spoken in Latin America”. On the other hand, a very generic and neutral definition is stated in the American Heritage Dictionary (qtd in Gabryś-Barker 2007:66): “Spanish characterised by numerous borrowings from English”.

The term Spanglish, or, as it is referred to in Spanish language, Espanglish, appears to have been coined by Salvador Tío, a journalist from Puerto Rico, in a newspaper column first published in 1952. Being considered in Latin America as the inventor of this word, Tío was concerned about the deterioration of the Spanish language in Puerto Rico under the onslaught of English words. Hence, the journalist waged a campaign of both polemical and satirical articles over more than half a century1. In one of them, the author stated his position unashamedly by writing that he does not believe in Latin or bilingualism and, as he further adds, Latin is a dead language while bilingualism itself, two dead languages.

By uncritically citing unrealistic parody along with legitimate instances of borrowings and calquing, Tío contributed to the false opinion of a mongrel language hovering on the brink of complete unintelligibility. Nash (1970:223–224) presents a somewhat contrary definition and a set of observations on Spanglish:

←14 | 15→

“In the metropolitan areas, where Hispanics play an influential role in the economic life of the island, there has arisen a hybrid variety of language, often given the slightly derogatory label of Spanglish, which coexists with less mixed forms of standard English and standard Spanish and has at least one of the characteristics of an autonomous language: a substantial number of native speakers. The emerging language retains the phonological, morphological, and syntactic structure of Spanish. However, much of its vocabulary is English-derived. That it is an autonomous language has been recognised not only by intellectuals, most of whom strongly disapprove of it […] but also by the New York School of Social Research, which has offered a course in Spanglish for doctors, nurses, and social workers.”

The author further provides clarification by stating that “Spanglish as defined here is neither language containing grammatical errors due to interference nor intentionally mixed language”2 (Nash 1970:225).

Grey and Woodrick (2005:145), in a survey of attitudes and inquiries about Spanish in America, initially define the term Spanglish innocently as “la mezcla del inglés y del español”3. The claim of the previous authors seems to be somewhat echoed by yet another researcher, Stavans (2003:6) a self-declared admirer and promoter of Spanglish. Certainly, the author’s extreme imitations and prolific popular opinions on Spanglish have made him a lightning rod for polemic. As Stavans (2003:7) cogently argues, Spanglish is “a verbal encounter between Anglo and Hispano civilisations”.

Nonetheless, several analysts have challenged Stavans on the grounds of Spanglish view. González Echeverría (qtd in Riehl 2005:1950), a distinguished literary critic, adopts an anti-imperialistic stance and considers Spanglish to consist primarily of the use of anglicisms by Spanish speakers. The author points out negative implications of Spanglish by stating:

“Spanglish, the language made up of Spanish and English off the streets and introduced into talk shows and advertising campaigns represents a grave danger for Latino culture and the progress of Latinos in mainstream America. Those who tolerate and even promote [Spanglish] as a harmless mixture don’t realise that this is not a relationship of equality. The sad truth is that Spanglish is basically the language of poor Latinos, many of whom are illiterate in both languages. They incorporate English words and constructions into their daily speech because they lack the vocabulary and training in Spanish to adapt to the culture that surrounds them. Educated Latinos who use this language have other motives: some are ashamed of their origins and try to blend in ←15 | 16→with everyone else by using English words and literally translating English idioms. They think that this will make them part of the mainstream. Politically, however, Spanglish represents a capitulation; it stands for marginalisation, not liberation.”

This condemnation of Spanglish as a manifestation of defeat and submissiveness by Hispanic communities in the United States recalls Silva-Corvalán’s (1994:45) lament, in another commentary on Spanglish, wherein the author comments on the problem of some Latinos in America, who have not had the opportunity to learn either Spanish or English. Another observation, which apparently refers to regional and social dialects, youth slang, and language contact phenomena, is offered by Joaquim Ibarz (qtd in Soler 1999:278). According to the author, speaking half in Spanish, half in English, is not nonsensical if cultural mixture, migrations, and other circumstances that have brought these two languages together are taken into consideration.

In the same vein, Riehl (2005:1945) expresses a similar appraisal by cogently arguing that Spanglish has its own logic and a logically clarified origin. It has been suggested also by Riehl that Spanglish serves a clear communicative function, but this applies only in a situation when one of the speakers lacks a vocabulary item: “When in doubt, to eliminate any obstacle to communication, one reverts to the English version, understood by both interlocutors, and communication takes place” (2005:1946). Thus, one may assume that the marginal status of Spanglish excludes Hispanics who do not understand English together with English speakers who do not understand Spanish. It is therefore restricted to minority speech communities.

In contrast to earlier findings, Brick, Challinor and Rosenblum (2011:5) present a more positive analysis. The researchers highlight the undeniable cultural fusion resulting from the presence of the Hispanic culture in the United States. The authors (2011:6–7) continue by stating that:

“A fundamental aspect of this fusion is the mixture of English and Spanish, giving rise to a complex phenomenon known as Spanglish […]. The function of Spanglish is clearly communicative, and it arises when one dialog partner lacks vocabulary, thereby necessitating the adaptation of known words to fit new ideas. For this reason it is considered a sign of linguistic creativity, which because of its informal nature cannot be academically standardised.”

Sergio Valdés Bernal and Nuria Gregori Tornada (qtd in Abalos 2007:240–246), both Cuban linguists, offer affirmation that Spanglish was used in 1898 only by Puerto Ricans in their New York neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, Spanglish, as might be expected, appeared in Miami among the new generation of Cuban-Americans. A combination of Anglicised Spanish, Hispanised English, and ←16 | 17→syntactic combinations is used unconsciously by children and adults. It seems apparent that for these scholars, Spanglish is mainly code-switching, although sometimes involving linguistic erosion and language loss.

Thus far, a fair amount of opinion has been presented in support of defining Spanglish as an entity that is not quite English, not quite Spanish, but somewhere in between, or the language spoken by an English-speaking person when attempting to speak Spanish3 (Burkitt 1991; Doughty and Long 2003; Ferguson 1959). In a few cases (Beziers and Overbeke 1968; Bloomfield 1935; Grey and Woodrick 2005) Spanglish is referred to as English with interference from Spanish, a phenomenon described by Nash (1970:224) as Englañol. Finally, Maduro (1987:1) has declared succinctly that Spanglish is not a language at all as its use is stigmatised as a deformation of English and Spanish.

To add yet another angle to the views presented, Costa-Belén (qtd in Montes 2003:34) observed that:

“Speakers of the non-defined mixture of Spanish and/or English are judged as ‘different’, or ‘sloppy’ speakers of Spanish and/or English, and are often labeled verbally deprived, alingual, or deficient bilinguals because supposedly they do not have the ability to speak either English or Spanish well.”

Given that, Milán (qtd in Montes 2003:35) specifically recommended that academics and scholars in Los Angeles refrain from using the designation Spanglish and instead operate with a neutral term such as Los Angeles City Spanish. Nevertheless, a more recent work by Zuniga and Ruben (2005:82) has demonstrated that the younger generation of Mexicans in Los Angeles and other cities of the United States are beginning to adopt the word Spanglish with pride, to refer explicitly to a creative style of bilingual communication which accomplishes significant cultural and conversational work.

More interestingly, Spanglish is also present in children’s literature, for example in a humorous didactic novel written by Montes (2003:45–47) in which a Puerto Rican girl is teased by her English-only peers. Drawing together literary, ←17 | 18→cultural, and political opinions, Morales (2002:3) adopts a politically-grounded stance, linking Spanglish with the notion that:

“Latinos are a mixed-race people […] there is a need for a way to say something more about this idea than the word ‘Latino’ expresses. So, for the moment, let’s consider a new term for the discussion of what this aspect of Latino means. Let us consider Spanglish. There is no better metaphor for what a mixed-race culture means than a hybrid language, an informal code; the same sort of linguistic construction that defines different classes in a society can also come to define something outside it, a social construction with different rules. Spanglish is what we speak, but it is also who we Latinos are, and how we act, and how we perceive the world. It’s also a way to avoid the sectarian nature of other labels that describe our condition, terms like Nuyorican, Chicano, Cuban American, Dominicanyork. It is an immediate declaration that translation is definition, that movement is status quo.”

While acknowledging that many researchers, particularly from other Spanish-speaking nations, perceive the notion of Spanglish as Spanish language under siege from an external invader, the vast majority of scholars continue to celebrate the emerging Hispanic language as an assertion of resistance and the creation of a powerful new identity. Hence, the remainder of Morales’s writings presents the Spanish-English interface in literary works, popular culture, and political discourse. It embodies the most eloquent manifesto of Spanglish as an originally derogatory designation having been co-opted by its former victims as a badge of pride and bravery. While it is hoped that all the negative connotations of the term Spanglish will eventually be lost, less flattering opinions still prevail forming the basis for the ongoing polemic that persists across all sections of the following research.

Aims and scope


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 282 pp., 49 fig. b/w, 38 tables.

Biographical notes

Judyta Pawliszko (Author)

Judyta Pawliszko, Ph.D. is a lecturer in the Applied Linguistic Department at University of Rzeszów. Her research focuses mainly on the verbal interpretation of reality and language hybrids resulting from linguistic contact. Recent publications explore code-switching and language worldview of bilinguals.


Title: Sociolinguistic analysis of Mexican-American bilingualism: Spanglish as a sociocultural phenomenon