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Reading in Spanish: The e-Libro Way
Volume 39, Number 4 - July/August 2015

Latin American and Spanish Studies

How large is this market? The Modern Language Association (MLA) provides a regular comprehensive study, “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education” (, which describes enrollments in lower- and upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses. The Fall 2013 study covers statistics reported by 2,616 U.S. colleges and universities offering degrees from the associate to Ph.D. level. While generally affirming the overwhelming predominance of Spanish as the most-studied foreign language in the U.S., there was a surprising result for 2013. Although Spanish continues its substantial lead (beating its closest rival, French, by 400%), Spanish enrollments fell at every institutional level for the first time in the history of the survey. In absolute numbers, nearly half of the drop was at the 2-year level. Nevertheless, total enrollments in Spanish continued to surpass enrollments in all other languages combined —790,756 to 771,423. Not accounted for in these figures are the even larger numbers of people learning Spanish at the preschool, elementary, and secondary levels, or as adult but not degree-seeking learners.

In addition to Spanish-language learning on all educational levels, there are also those higher-education students, faculty, and researchers in Latina/o studies programs, which generally focus on the history, culture, and society of Latin America or Latin Americans, rather than Spanish and Portuguese languages and literatures. Naturally, there is some overlap within this and the Spanish-language group, but there are significant numbers of Latina/o studies majors who already speak Spanish and therefore are not enrolled in Spanish-language courses. Majors in this area of ethnic studies may study and work in anthropology, archaeology, history and area studies, and international business.

Who’s Hispanic?
It Depends on Whom You Ask

You don’t get far in researching Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. before you begin to wonder about the terminology used to describe them. According to a Pew Research Center “Hispanic Trends” report, the U.S. government has two methods of defining who in the U.S. is Hispanic. Both arise from a 1976 act of Congress and the administrative regulations that flow from it.

The first method was developed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1977 and revised in 1997. It defines Hispanic or Latino as “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries.” Using these standards, schools, public health facilities, and other government entities and agencies keep track of how many Hispanics they serve.

The second method takes a very different approach. This one, used by the Bureau of the Census, relies entirely on self-reporting, letting each respondent identify him- or herself as Hispanic or not. Who’s Hispanic? “Anyone who says they are. And nobody who says they aren’t.” Census forms ask the “Hispanic” question, allowing respondents to identify themselves as one of the following:

  • Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano
  • Puerto Rican
  • Cuban
  • Other Hispanic/Spanish/Latino

Extracted from the Pew Research Center,report “Who’s Hispanic?” by Jeffrey S. Passel and Paul Taylor, May 28, 2009 (

Spanish Speakers

The other—and larger—segment of the market for Spanish-language ebooks is Spanish speakers. According to the Instituto Cervantes, a worldwide project of the government of Spain, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is now about 52 million. In 2050, however, estimates are that the U.S. will be the country with the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world (“El Espa ñ ol: Una Lengua Viva. Informe 2014,” Instituto Cervantes).

Who are the Spanish speakers and how many of them are there? One measure is made by the decennial U.S. Census and the annual American Community Survey (ACS). The Census has asked about languages spoken in every census since 1890 (excepting one in the middle of the 20th century) in order to assess whether people have enough English-language skills to participate in civic life and to interact with the English-speaking majority.

Since 1980, the census and its successor, ACS, have gathered three facts about languages spoken: 1) How many people (aged 5 and above) speak a language other than English at home; 2) what languages are spoken; and 3) how well English is spoken (“very well,” “well,” “not well,” and “not at all”).

The 2011 report found 60,577,020 people 5 years of age and older who spoke a language other than English in the home. Sixty-two percent of these spoke Spanish. Of the Spanish-speakers, nearly 75% also spoke English “very well” or “well” (56.3%, “very well,” and 17.8%,”well”). Notable also is that while the percentage of the total population 5 years and older who spoke Spanish increased from 2005 to 2011, the percentage of the total population who spoke Spanish and spoke English less than “very well” actually decreased. In terms of the youth population, 83% of those between 15 and 19 who spoke Spanish at home, and 81% of those who spoke a language other than Spanish at home, spoke English “very well.”

Does this mean that there is a declining need for Spanish-language texts for young people? Of course not. Rather, I think, it points to an increasing multilingualism among the population of the U.S. In a New York Times op-ed in 2012, Michael Erard remarked on the trend, citing the limitations of the Census/ACS question about what language one speaks at home as an indicator of language ability. He recommends that the ACS use the question “Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue?” instead and suggested several scenarios in which people do have such competence in languages other than English:

  • People who have learned other languages in school
  • People who have learned other languages by living abroad
  • Employers who have learned enough Spanish, for example, to communicate with employees
  • Workers in hospitals, clinics, courts, and retail stores who have picked up parts of another language to be more effective in their jobs
  • Returning soldiers with some competence in Arabic, Pashto, or Dari, for example
  • Third-generation kids studying their heritage language in informal schools on weekends
  • Spouses and partners picking up the language of a loved one’s family
  • Enthusiasts learning languages on the internet

In essence, the “Spanish-speaking” market should not be limited to native Spanish speakers. The Pew Research Center has determined that some 2.8 million non-Hispanics speak Spanish at home today, and that 89% of them were born in the U.S. Presumably, they would like to maintain or improve their skills.

Now based in Cincinnati, Susanne Bjørner ( previously lived for a dozen years in Spain but is not Hispanic. She is the author of a series of articles appearing in Searcher magazine from 2010–2012 on searching Spanish-language reference databases.


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