10 Myths About Spanish and the People Who Speak It

As World's No. 2 Language, Spanish Is Used by Diverse Population

Natsumatsuri 2016 for an article on the diversity of Spanish-speaking countries.
Kamila Rodríguez cosplays as Babydoll at Natsumatsuri 2016, an event held in Lima, Peru, to celebrate Japanese culture. Lima is one of Latin America's many culturally and ethnically diverse cities. Art DiNo/Creative Commons.

When many people, especially those in the United States, think of Spanish, they tend to think of mariachis, their favorite Mexican actor and Mexican immigrants. But the Spanish language and its people are far more diverse than the stereotypes suggest. Here we debunk 10 myths about Spanish and the people who speak it:

More People Grow Up Speaking English Than Speaking Spanish

Because English has become a worldwide lingua franca for science, tourism and business, it's easy to forget that English is far surpassed by two other languages in terms of numbers of native speakers.

Easily ranking No. 1 is Mandarin Chinese with 897 million native speakers, according to the Ethnologue database. Spanish comes in a distant second with 427 million, but that's well ahead of English with 339 million.

One reason English seems more prominent is because it's regularly spoken in 106 countries, compared with just 31 countries for Spanish. And English does rank ahead of Spanish when non-native speakers are counted as it is the world's most common second language.

Spanish Is the Language of Latin America

The term "Latin America" traditionally is applied to any of the countries of the Americas where a Romance language is the dominant language. So the most populous country of Latin America — Brazil with more than 200 million residents — has Portuguese, not Spanish, as its official language. Even French-and Creole-speaking Haiti is considered part of Latin American, as is French Guiana.

But countries such as Belize (formerly British Honduras, where English is the national language) and Suriname (Dutch) are not. Neither is French-speaking Canada.

Even in countries where Spanish is the official language, other languages are common. Indigenous languages such as Quechua and Guarani are widely used in large swaths of South America, and the latter is co-official in Paraguay, where it is spoken even by many who aren't of Amerindian heritage.

Nearly two dozen languages are spoken in Guatemala, and in Mexico about 6 percent of people don't speak Spanish as their first language.

Native Spanish Speakers Talk Like Speedy Gonzales

The Spanish of the cartoon character Speedy Gonzales is an exaggeration of Mexican Spanish, of course, but the truth is that a minority of Spanish speakers have a Mexican accent. The Spanish of Spain and Argentina, to take two examples, doesn't sound like Mexican Spanish — just as U.S. English speakers don't sound like their counterparts in Great Britain or South Africa.

Although much of the regional variations in English tend to be with the vowels, in Spanish the variation is in the consonants: In the Caribbean, for example, speakers may tend to distinguish little between the r and the l. In Spain, most people pronounce the soft c with the tongue against the upper teeth rather than the front of the palate. There are substantial variations as well in the rhythm of speech from region to region.

The Spanish 'R' Is Difficult to Pronounce

Yes, it does take practice to get the trilled r to come naturally, but millions learn it every year. But not all R's are trilled: You can pronounce the common word pero close to correctly just by sounding out "peddo," and mero sounds very much like "meadow."

In any case, it's undoubtedly easier for native English speakers to pronounce the Spanish r than for native Spanish speakers to pronounce the English "r."

People Who Speak Spanish Are Spanish

As a nationality, "Spanish" refers to people from Spain and only Spain. People who are from Mexico are, well, Mexican; people from Guatemala are Guatemalan; and so on.

I won't try to settle here any controversy over how to use terms such as "Hispanic" and "Latino." Suffice it to say that traditionally in Spanish, hispano is used to refer to someone from the Iberian Peninsula, while latino can refer to anyone from a country that speaks a Latin-derived language — and sometimes specifically to people from the Lazio region of Italy.

Native Spanish Speakers Have Brown Skin, Brown Eyes and Black Hair

In their totality, Spain and the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America are every bit the melting pot of races and ethnicities that the United States is.

The societies of Spanish-speaking Latin America descend not only from Spaniards and indigenous Amerindians, but also from peoples of Africa, Asia and non-Spanish Europe.

Most of the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas have a population that is majority mestizo (mixed race). Four countries (Argentina, Chile, Cuba and Paraguay) are majority white.

In Central America, many blacks, usually descendants of slaves, live along the Atlantic coast. Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua each have a black population of around 10 percent.

Peru especially has a large population of Asian ancestry. About 1 million are of Chinese heritage, and thus the abundance of chifas, as Chinese restaurants are known there. One of the former presidents of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, is of Japanese heritage.

You Can Form Spanish Nouns Just by Adding 'O' to the English Word

This works sometimes: A car in much of Latin America is a carro, a telephone is a teléfono, an insect is an insecto, and a secret is a secreto.

But try this often and most of the time you'll just end up with gibberish.

Besides, an a works sometimes too: A jar is a jarra, music is música, a family is a familia, and a pirate is a pirata.

And, please, don't say "No problemo" for "No problem." It's "No hay problema."

People Who Speak Spanish Eat Tacos (or Maybe Paella)

Yes, tacos are common in Mexico, although it should tell you something that Taco Bell markets itself as U.S.-style fast food in Mexico, not as a Mexican-style chain. And paella is indeed eaten in Spain, although even there it's considered something of a regional dish. But these foods aren't found everywhere that Spanish is spoken.

The fact is every region of the Spanish-speaking world has its own culinary favorites, and not all have crossed international boundaries. Not even the names are the same: Ask for a tortilla in Mexico or Central America, and you're likely to get a sort of pancake or bread made from cornmeal, while in Spain you're likelier to receive an egg omelette, possibly prepared with potatoes and onions.

Go to Costa Rica and ask for a casado, and you'll get a simple if tasty four-course meal. Ask for the same in Chile, and they'll just wonder why you'd want a married man.

Spanish Will Take Over English in the United States

While the number of native Spanish speakers in the United States is projected to increase to around 40 million by 2020 — up from 10 million in 1980 — studies consistently show that their children will grow up bilingual and that their grandchildren are likely to speak English exclusively. In other words, the level of Spanish speaking is tied more closely to current immigration rates than it is to use of Spanish by those born in the U.S. The descendants of Spanish speakers switch to English as they assimilate just as did those who came to America speaking German, Italian and Chinese.

Spanish Is an Official Language in Just Spain and Latin America

Of the African territories that were once part of the Spanish Empire, one independent country still uses Spanish. That's Equatorial Guinea, which gained independence in 1968. One of the smallest countries in Africa, it has around 750,000 residents. About two-thirds of them speak Spanish, while French, Portuguese and indigenous languages also are used.