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Spanish & Chicano English

High School  Levels 9-12

Spanish & Chicano English

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The Hispanic population is now the largest and fastest growing minority in the United States. With increased size has come increased visibility and cultural influence—but also more widespread and more entrenched stereotypes. This unit addresses the history and current status of the Hispanic population and its languages in the U.S. Spanish has a long history in the New World, where it has co-existed in dynamic tension and sometimes conflict with English and other languages, and has become an enduring and valuable part of the American heritage. Although some fear that Spanish could eventually replace English in the U.S., the study of other multilingual situations suggests that Spanish is not a threat to English, because English remains the dominant medium of cultural, political, and economic life. Finally, this unit examines Chicano English, a dialect spoken by some Americans of Mexican descent.

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Key Ideas

  • Spanish was established in parts of what is now the United States before English-speaking settlers arrived.
  • Spanish is becoming more prevalent in the U.S., but it does not threaten to supplant English.
  • Spanish-speaking immigrants come from diverse backgrounds and places. They speak a number of very different dialects of Spanish.
  • By the second or third generation in the U.S., most people of Hispanic descent have English as their dominant language. Some speak a variety of English known as Chicano English.
  • Speaking Chicano English does not signal limited proficiency in English. In fact, Chicano English speakers are usually native speakers of English and may speak little or no Spanish.

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Key Terms

NCTE Standards Addressed by this Unit

Standard 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

In this unit, students can apply their knowledge of some features of Chicano English in reading and critiquing fiction that incorporates this dialect.

Standard 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

In this unit, students consider how Chicano English is structured, how it is used, and how it relates to English and to Spanish. Students extend their understanding of how language is linked to social identity as they read materials mentioned in this unit.

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Student Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand the history of Spanish in what is now the United States.
  • Understand the current language status of the Hispanic population.
  • Be able to characterize Spanglish and Chicano English.
  • Understand some features of Chicano English.

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Using the Unit

Before You Teach

  • This unit is best situated as part of a larger one on exploring and understanding cultures, languages, and language varieties. Discussion can emphasize the diversity of cultures and languages in the American experience. Consider drawing on resources in both the social studies and the language arts departments in preparing for and teaching this unit.
  • It is recommended that students read one or more of the suggested readings listed below. These essays provide background knowledge for discussion of the video segments. The Carter essay, “The Past and Present of Spanish in the United States,” and the C. Fought essay, “Talking with Mi Gente,” are particularly informative.
  • Knowing which students are bilingual in English and another language, and encouraging them to discuss the value of multilingualism, provides a good background for this unit.
  • Teachers should be aware that some segments of the video (such as the border patrol) may be personally relevant to some students and their families.
  • Students should be encouraged to think critically about the viewpoints expressed in the video and consider the assumptions about language behind them. 

Teaching The Unit

  • The material in this unit is likely to spark discussion and elicit strong opinions. Teachers will want to establish clear guidelines as to what sort of comments are acceptable and unacceptable as well as a means for ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to be heard.
  • Teachers will want to encourage students to distinguish between positions expressed in the video that are based on personal opinion and experience and those based on scientific study. However, personal views cannot simply be ignored. They are valuable because they reveal how people perceive language in culture.

After You Teach

  • Evaluate the unit with the class in terms of language rights and the role of individuals and nations in accommodating these rights.

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Video Sections Used in this Unit

Do You Speak American? is available on both DVD and conventional videotape. Guides for accessing specific sections of the video have been formatted as follows:

Description/Episode         DVD Section      VT Time Code     Running Time                        

Hip Hop (DYSA/1)                   2.6                        [01:27:19]              (8:43)
For more information on accessing the video click here.   
In this unit:
Rosa Can’t Speak English (DYSA/1)   1.4   [01:18:46]   (2:01) 
South to the Border (DYSA/2)*   2.9   [01:45:23]   (9:33) 
Spanglish and Chicano
(DYSA/3)   3.2   [01:01:33]   (6:51)

 *This section of the video may be inflammatory in some situations. The search for illegal immigrants and some of the opinions expressed are likely to be controversial. Teachers should preview it before using it in class.

Total time of video segments: (18:25)

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Description of Video Segments

Rosa Can’t Speak English  (DYSA/1)  1.4   [01:18:46]   (2:01)
takes place in Spanish Harlem in New York. Robert MacNeil orders a shaved ice from a street vendor, Rosa, who has lived and worked in New York City for nineteen years without speaking English.

South to the Border (DYSA/2)   2.9   [01:45:23]   (9:33)
opens with MacNeil driving south through Texas toward the U.S.-Mexican border. He speaks with Allan Wall, a U.S. citizen who lives in Mexico. Wall is a language teacher who believes that English should be made the official language of the United States and that Spanish poses a serious threat to national unity and to English in the U.S. In a supermarket in Laredo, Texas, customers and clerks speak mainly Spanish. MacNeil next interviews Robert Garcia, editor of the Laredo newspaper, which is published daily in both English and Spanish. Garcia describes how people in the area switch between English and Spanish. MacNeil then travels to El Cenizo, Texas. Under a previous mayor, El Cenizo made Spanish the town’s official language. MacNeil asks Garcia and Wall their reactions to El Cenizo’s decision.  

Spanglish and Chicano (DYSA/3)   3.2   [01:01:33]   (6:51)
offers a different view of the immigration of Spanish speakers into the U.S. MacNeil visits Patricia Lopez, who hosts a television show, Mex 2 the Max, that features Latino music videos. During her show, she alternates between English and Spanish, blending the two languages at times into what she refers to as Spanglish. She discusses with MacNeil the impact that Spanish and Spanglish have on contemporary American culture. MacNeil next meets with Carmen Fought, a linguist who does research on Chicano English. MacNeil and Fought observe some Chicano English-speaking boys in a park, one of whom does not speak any Spanish at all. Fought explains that Spanish is not a threat to English. She describes the process by which the descendants of Spanish-speaking people lose the language of their parents and grandparents in favor of English.

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Background Information

Is Spanish New in the U.S.?

People may be surprised to learn that Spanish was spoken in parts of what is now the United States before English speakers came to North America, as is explained in the essay “The Present and Past of Spanish in the United States” by Phillip Carter. The Spanish began to explore North America in 1492, and their first permanent settlement was St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565. The Spanish also explored much of the American Southwest and West (including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Oregon), beginning as early as 1540. In fact, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established in 1605, two years before the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.

How Many Spanish Speakers are there in the U.S.?

Reports of the number of Spanish speakers in the U.S. vary depending on what is meant by Spanish speakers. Does the term include only people who are monolingual in Spanish or does it also include those who are bilingual or multilingual? Does it include those from Spain as well as those from Mexico or Central or South America? Does it include people who are not of Hispanic descent who have learned Spanish through their education or training? (The term Hispanic refers to people of Latin American or—less often in the United States—Spanish descent who speak Spanish, though not necessarily exclusively, and who retain aspects of non-Anglo culture.) The 2000 census reports that there are 28 million Americans with at least some Spanish proficiency. Of these, about 8 million are reported as speaking English “not at all” or “not well,” while 20 million speak English “well” or “very well.” Actually, the percentage of speakers who speak English “not at all” or “not well” may be over-reported. Census numbers are based on family reporting, typically by heads of households. But, as Carmen Fought explains in the video, children of Spanish-speaking parents may be more fluent in English than their parents. If the head of their household is not fully aware of their English proficiency, which is quite possible when the language of the home is Spanish, children may be counted as non-proficient. At the same time, the actual number of Spanish-speaking persons may be under-reported: Census methodologies may miss migrant workers, those without a permanent address and telephone number, and non-U.S. citizens living in the U.S. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Hispanic population is now the largest minority group in the U.S., and it is projected to continue to grow in numbers and percentage of the total population. For more information about the Hispanic population, visit the Pew Hispanic Center Web page

What is the Status of Spanish in the U.S.?

Although the Hispanic population is expected to continue growing, Spanish is highly unlikely to ever rival English as the most common language used in the U.S. In her essay, “Watch Your Language,” Carmen Fought explains the process by which children move away from Spanish (or other immigrant languages) in favor of English. After a generation or two in the U.S., children and grandchildren of immigrants tend to favor English (and may not even speak their ancestral language at all). This was true of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrant groups such as the Italians, Germans, and Chinese, and it seems to be true now with the Hispanic population as well.

Sometimes descendants of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico or Central or South America speak a distinctive variety of English called Chicano English. Chicano English is a fully formed dialect of English, and one can speak Chicano English without knowing any Spanish at all. People are often unable to distinguish between Chicano English speakers who also speak Spanish and Chicano English speakers who do not. Try it for yourself here.

On the other hand, speakers who are fluent in both Spanish and English may codeswitch between the two languages within a single conversation. Occasionally they combine elements of Spanish and English in a single sentence or even a single word. This mixture of languages is sometimes called “Spanglish.” Unlike Chicano English, Spanglish is not a dialect of either English or Spanish but rather an intertwining of the two languages. It is not, though, a haphazard mixture of the two, for speakers observe certain grammatical constraints (for instance, they are unlikely to switch languages between an auxiliary verb and a main verb). Spanglish is, rather, a style of bilingual communication that allows speakers to reinforce their bilingual and bicultural identity.

Different dialects of Spanish are spoken in the U.S. today. As Phillip Carter explains, this is explained partly by the fact that early settlers came from different areas of Spain. Other dialects are the result of more recent immigration from other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Just like English, Spanish is not the same everywhere, even within one country.

What does Chicano English Sound Like?

In addition to incorporating some Spanish (often taboo) words, Chicano English has some distinctive pronunciation patterns. Some of them are shared with African American English (AAE) and other vernacular dialects. One of these is the use of a “d” sound instead of a “th” sound: these and them are often pronounced “dese”and “dem.” Another is the loss of a consonant at the end of a word if that consonant is part of a consonant blend (also called a consonant cluster). For example, the word missed (which sounds the same as mist) will likely be pronounced as “miss.”Thus, when Chicano English (or AAE) speakers say “I miss’ the bus,” it may sound like they are using the present tense of the verb. A third feature common to Chicano English and other vernacular dialects is so-called g-dropping at the end of –ing verb forms, as in fishin’ and goin’. But here Chicano English differs from other vernacular varieties: It substitutes an “ee” sound for the short “i” sound in these verbs. So going may sound like “goween. Finally, Chicano is characterized by what linguists call the “non-reduction of unstressed vowels.” In English, if a syllable is not stressed, its vowel is often “reduced”—that is, pronounced “uh.” For example, most English speakers pronounce the first syllables of because or together with an “uh”: “buh-cuz” and “tuh-gether.” But Chicano English speakers often use “ee” and “oo” sounds even in unstressed syllables: They are likely to say “bee-cuz” and “too-gether.”

Should the U.S. Have an Official Language?

Most countries are multilingual and multicultural. But they deal with the question of whether to declare an official language in several ways. Some have one official language; others have more than one; and others, like the U.S. and Australia, have no official language.

The question of whether the U.S. ought to have an official language has long been discussed. One bit of folklore has it that German was defeated as the official language of the U.S. by a single vote in 1795. Though not true, the story does suggest that the question of an official language is rooted in fears about other languages taking over English. The closest thing to a formal position on English as an official language is the Nationality Act of 1940, which requires that in order to gain U.S. citizenship most immigrants must be able to speak and understand rudimentary English. (Exceptions are made in the act and subsequent amendments for children, people with disabilities, and people who have resided in the U.S. for a particular length of time.)

English is not the official language of the U.S., but there is a vocal group of people whose goal is to make it so. This “English Only” movement is opposed by numerous groups, including the National Council of Teachers of English, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages,and the Linguistic Society of America. A brief history of the English Only movement, as well as some examples of attempts to enforce English Only policy can be found here.  Writer and lecturer James Crawford has written extensively on the background and policy of the English Only movement. Crawford and others have suggested that bilingualism is beneficial for the U.S. and that declaring English the official language might jeopardize the language resources that the country needs for various purposes such as diplomacy, art, travel, study, and defense.

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Discussion Questions

Rosa Can’t Speak English (DYSA/1)

        1. Spanish in NYC: Rosa, the street vendor in the video. What conditions are necessary for getting by in the U.S. without speaking English? If Rosa has children who grew up in the U.S, do you think they speak only Spanish, both Spanish and English, or only English? Why? Do you think that it is getting easier or harder to get by without speaking English? Why? What disadvantages are there to not speaking English?

South to the Border (DYSA/2)

        2. English Only Movement: Allan Wall says, “I think [other languages are] a threat to the linguistic unity of our nation because the English language is our common civic language.” Non-English speaking immigrants have been coming to the U.S. throughout its history. Why do you think people fear other languages encroaching on the position of English as the dominant language in the U.S.? What kind of information would be needed to support or refute this opinion? 

        3. Supermarket and Newspaper Editor: Newspaper editor Robert Garcia says he is used to “switching back and forth” between Spanish and English, and the clerk in the supermarket switches between Spanish and English during the course of her public announcement. What are the advantages of being able to switch between English and Spanish? If you were a monolingual speaker of English living in Garcia’s area, would you try to learn Spanish? Why or why not?

Spanglish and Chicano (DYSA/3)

        4. Patricia Lopez: Patricia Lopez says that Spanish will become the unofficial second language of the U.S. and that it’s possible to get by without speaking English. If Lopez is right, what would it mean for America? Would things change drastically? Is it good or bad that people can get by without English? Do you think all Americans should be able to speak Spanish?

        5a. Chicano Boys: Carmen Fought says that it is common for speakers of Chicano English not to know how to speak Spanish. She also says that the Spanish words these speakers know are often taboo terms. In what ways is this situation similar to or different from the development of slang in other dialects of English?

        5b. Fought’s research counters common stereotypes that speakers of Chicano English do not know English well. What do such popular perceptions of Chicano English suggest about social attitudes? Why do you think these misconceptions persist?

        6. Spanish in America: Carmen Fought notes that often the second generation of children born in America does not retain the home language. This is the pattern that led to the disappearance of languages such as Italian or German in the U.S. (except in a few isolated communities). Do you think that Spanish will follow this pattern, or is it an exception to it? Why? Do you agree with Fought that “It’s Spanish that is in danger”? Why?

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Student Activities / Assessments

1. Journal, portfolio, or writing assignment: Any of the discussion questions above could be used as a journal writing prompt, a portfolio writing topic, or another general writing assignment.

2. Read (and respond) assignment: Have students or groups of students read the essays by Carter, "The Past and Present of Spanish in the United States"; C. Fought, "Talking with Mi Gente"; Crawford, " A Nation Divided by One Language"; Baron "The English Only movement through the 1990s," and present overviews to the class.

3. Interactive Audio Exercise: Is this person bilingual?. Play the audio clips for students and have them try to guess whether the person they hear speaking is bilingual (a speaker of both Spanish and Chicano English) or monolingual (a speaker only of Chicano English). Have students respond to the following questions: What sorts of clues did they use to make their decision? What features of the voice misled them? What assumptions did they make about the speakers when listening to and categorizing the voices?

4a. Literature-based exercise: Recently, a number of Chicano and Latino authors have included English-Spanish code-switching and/or Chicano English in their novels, which illustrate through their characters’ speech the changing role of Chicano English and Spanish-speaking populations in contemporary U.S. society. Students can read the following dialogue from Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and assess the code-switching. If students do not understand the Spanish terms, have them look them up. Does the switching add to or detract from the dialogue? Does this character’s code-switching reflect a lack of proficiency in English? 

Setting: In a conversation between Flavio and the protagonist, Flavio explains that he loves her but that the relationship cannot continue.

“There is no other remedy. La yin y el yang, you know,” Flavio said and meant it.

“Well, yeah,”… “I think you better go now. I gotta get my clothes out of the dryer before they get wrinkled.”

Es cool,” Flavio said, sliding out of the booth and my life. “Ay te wacho, I guess.”

( p. 157)

At the end of the dialogue, Flavio uses the phrase “Ay te wacho” (meaning something like See you later), which may look like Spanish to monolingual English speakers. However, this phrase fuses English and Spanish together. Wacho is not an actual word in Spanish, but rather the English word watch with the Spanish ending –o. In fact, there are no words that begin with a -w in Spanish. What does this information tell you about the character Flavio? Why do you think the author chose to present this important scene in this way?

4b. Literature-based exercise: Students can read and respond to other books by Latino authors that provide commentary on the changing role of Chicano English and Spanish-speaking populations in contemporary U.S. society. They can analyze code-switching by characters and figure out what triggers a shift from one language to another or which topics are likely to be discussed in Spanish and which in English. Some suggestions are:

The House on Mango Street or Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Living Up the Street or A Summer Life by Gary Soto

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas

La Vida Loca by Luis J. Rodriguez

The Road to Tamazunchale by Ron Arias

Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal

The Rain God by Arturo Islas

Canícula by Norma Elia Cantú

The moths and other stories by Helena María Viramontes

Face of an Angel by Denise Chávez

Klail City by Rolando Hinojosa

So Far From God or The Mixquiahuala Letters by Ana Castillo

Riding Low on the Streets of Gold or Call Me Maria by Judith Ortiz Cofer

Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago

House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré

Before We Were Free or How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

5. Research-based exercise: Have students research the official language situation in another country and report on several of the following questions:

a. What is the official language?

b. Are there other languages in the country that do not have official status?

c. What percentage of the population speaks the official language as a native (first) language?

d. How was one language established as the official one?

e. Are the languages other than the official one considered prestigious or are they stigmatized?

f. How does the government accommodate the country’s multilingualism?

g. What roles do various languages serve in the society?

Some countries with particularly interesting language situations are South Africa, Ghana, Mexico, India, and China. Students may also wish to study the country of their own heritage.

6. Research-based exercise: Have students explore the Pew Hispanic Center Web site, which provides statistical information about the Hispanic population. In groups, students choose a language-related topic about which information is available on the Web site and make a presentation about its relevance to the Hispanic population. On the home page, there is a link to a list of Web sites that provide demographic information about the Hispanic population. One site of interest is Grantmakers Concerned with Immigration and Refugees (GCIR).

7a. English-only Movement: Have students read Baron’s article "The English Only Movement Through the 1990s" and engage in a formal debate about the English Only movement.

7b. In Baron’s article “Language Legislation and Language Abuse: American Language Policy through the 1990s,” he refers to a 1995 custody case in Texas in which a judge accused Martha Laureano of child abuse for speaking Spanish to her five-year-old daughter. Have students write their reactions to this ruling in their journals. If they had been Ms. Laureano’s lawyer, what arguments would they have made on her behalf?

8. Fun Quiz on Spanish Loan Words: Have students take the following quiz matching common English words to the Spanish words from which they are derived. (This material can be found on the Oxford English Dictionary Web site.)

1) hurricane

2) tomato

3) alligator

4) lasso

5) savvy

6) cigar/cigarette

7) potato

8) renegade

9) stampede

10) canyon

11) mustang

12) iguana

13) cargo

a) el legarto (the lizard)

b) cañon

c) cargar (to load)

d) huracán

e) huiana

f) lazo

g) mestengo + mostrenco (both mean stray, having no master)

h) patata

i) renegado

j) sabe/saber (to know)

k) estampido (crash, uproar)

l) tomate

m) cigarro

9. Fun Exercise on Spanglish Words: Have students match the English words with the Spanglish words below by applying the Spanish features provided. These Spanglish words were collected from bilingual Spanish and English speakers.




Boot (verb; i.e. boot a computer)

Check (noun)

Park (verb)


Surf (verb; i.e. surf the internet)

Spanish Features

English à Spanish

“uh” à O

“oo à U

“k” à qu

“j” à y

Verb suffix –ar

Noun suffix –e









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  • Bayley, R., & Schecter, S. R. (Eds.). Language Socialization in Bilingual and Multilingual societies. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters Limited, 2003.
    Individuals in bilingual and multilingual communities are socialized through language in the context of home, work, school, and peer group into particular cultural practices. This book reports research in countries including the U.S., Bolivia, Australia, Egypt, Slovakia, Canada, and India.
  • Crawford, J.  At War with Diversity: U.S. language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 2000.
    This volume sketches and analyzes the history of opposition to bilingual education. It also highlights issues surrounding endangered Native American languages and argues for their maintenance.
  • Fasold, R.  The Sociolinguistics of Society. Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
    Chapters 1, 9, and 10 present a very accessible consideration of societal multilingualism and language planning in a range of countries.
  • Fought, C. Chicano English in Context. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2002.
    This book shows how Latino identity is supported through Chicano English and presents sociolinguistic research on sound change, issues of bilingualism, and media portrayals of the Latino community.
  • Villanueva, V. Bootstraps. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English:, 1993.
  • Zentella, A. C.  Growing up Bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York. Malden, MA/ Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
    This book analyzes the forms and functions of the language of children and adolescents growing up as New York Puerto Ricans. The fact that they live in a linguistically diverse community means that they need to be familiar with several varieties of English and several more of Spanish.

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Video Key:

DVD Episode & Chapters: For DVD users, DYSA has been broken down into episodes and chapters. The term chapter is industry standard for sections or "breaks" programmed into the DVD video. A number indicating the DYSA episode will always be followed by a number indicating the DVD chapter within an episode. (i.e. 1.2 is Episode 1, Chapter 2. The numbers 1.2 appear on-screen for DVD users.) DVD users may watch a DYSA episode straight through or alternatively, jump to specific sections of the program by referring to a main menu available on the DVD.

Chapter Description
Chapter (or section) descriptions are available on-screen for DVD users only, and include a text description along side  the episode number and the chapter number within the episode (i.e. 1.2 Pronunciation in Maine). Videotape users will need to refer to printed versions of the curricular units to benefit from the chapter descriptions.

Running Time The running time indicates the length of the section of video.

Videotape (VT) Time Code Videotape users should fast forward or rewind to the corresponding number displayed in the videotape counter window in the front of the videotape playback device. (i.e. Videotape users should insert the videotape in the player and shuttle to [01:27:19] in the counter window to see the beginning of the Springville,Texas section.)

Back to Video Sections Used in this Unit

The Do You Speak American? curriculum was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York