Video by Horatio Baltz.
For those of us who have tried learning a foreign language from home, acquiring cultural fluency can feel like an impossibility. While one can make extraordinary progress in a language with the right tools (daily practice, private or group lessons, language-learning apps, language tandems via Skype, listening, reading, writing, etc.), true fluency is equal parts language and culture. And cultural fluency requires — you got it — immersion!
Of course, not all of us have the resources to travel to foreign countries, let alone uproot our lives and move for extended periods of time. But while we acknowledge this limitation, we often forget that we already have access to a whole range of cultural resources right in our own communities. These resources, vast and diverse, are easily overlooked — not because they’re not useful, but because we just don’t think of them as language-learning tools. It’s easy to forget that we live in multicultural, multilingual societies. And in this respect, nothing quite compares to being a Spanish learner in the United States.
With 40 million native speakers and an additional 11 million bilingual speakers, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the US; and the US is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world! The sheer number of Spanish speakers dwarfs other minority languages in the United States (many of which, including Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and French, boast well over a million speakers each). Spanish-language media has also skyrocketed, with the Spanish-speaking Univision now the fifth most watched network in the United States (even occasionally surpassing its English-language counterparts). Plus, Spanish-language newspapers exist in almost every major American city, Spanish-language radio is even more prevalent, and content producers like Netflix and HBO are increasingly licensing and creating content in Spanish.
Media is an amazing resource for anyone learning Spanish in the United States because of its easy access and ubiquity. And what really makes it an asset, and even confers an advantage over learning a language in a foreign country, is that we are already immersed in our own culture. Immersing ourselves in Spanish-language media simply gives us the opportunity to view our own culture through another lens. So not only can you learn Spanish with the added benefit of already being familiar with cultural references and topics, but you can also glean a deeper understanding of parts of your own culture so often overlooked by mainstream English-language media. The more you watch, read and listen to Spanish-language media in the United States, the more it will dawn on you that you haven’t exactly switched cultures, just languages.
Let me emphasize, however, that Spanish-language media is not simply a mirror of English-language media; it’s not purely a matter of learning a new set of words to describe a common experience. It caters to a different market primarily composed of immigrants from Latin America, and reflects the experiences of this community. You will be (gently!) exposed to Mexican, Caribbean, Central and South American cultures. You may hear the occasional news story about political events in a Latin American country, involving personalities that you may not be familiar with. If you listen to or watch sports news, you will hear just as much about basketball and baseball as you do in English-language media, but you will hear significantly more about fútbol than you are used to hearing. You will also hear a lot more about certain policy issues that affect Spanish-speakers in the United States, issues often glossed over by the mainstream English-speaking media. In this way, Spanish-language media also plays a critical role in informing immigrants (who may not speak much English) of their rights (e.g. how certain laws will affect them and what services are available to them).
Ultimately, the goal is the same: Spanish-language media, like English-language media, revolves around the culture and politics of the United States. The market it caters to is incredibly diverse, composed of Americans (citizen and noncitizen) who originate from more than a dozen countries. This means that the common denominator of Spanish-speakers in the US is both the Spanish language and the US! Spanish-language media is also catering more and more to bilingual viewers and listeners who may be thoroughly americanized, but prefer to watch programming in Spanish when they’re at home. The result is a vast media landscape centered on the (Spanish-speaking) American consumer, with increasing emphasis on American.
When you engage with media from other countries, so much flies over your head, and it can be daunting if you don’t understand all the references. Spanish-language media in the US is a gentle way to ease yourself into foreign cultural context, while remaining focused on political and cultural subjects already familiar to you; it levels the playing field for your language acquisition and gives you insight into your own culture and the experiences of your Spanish-speaking neighbors. So remember: Spanish-language media is everywhere — from TV to the internet, newspapers and radio. All you have to do is tune in!