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Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world by native speakers, behind Mandarin Chinese and Hindi. It is overwhelmingly the most popular language taught across U.S. universities. This popularity is fueled by several factors, including the growing U.S. population of Spanish speakers, our influence on both the U.S. culture and economy and the perceived ease of learning Spanish compared to other languages. Here at Penn, every undergraduate school except the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has a language requirement.

And like most requirements at Penn, I’ve heard plenty of students complain about it. I feel you guys, I don’t want to have to worry about how many courses I can double count either. However, the language requirement is definitely one of the most worthwhile requirements out of the bunch. You might find it annoying when you realize you didn’t score high enough to place out of Spanish and have to take another semester, but Penn is only trying to correct for yet another grievous error in the United States’ education system: our extreme deficiency in foreign language learning, responsible for producing phrases like “No Speaky Spanish.”

Most native speakers are happy to see people making an effort to learn their language. We usually don’t care if you make grammatical mistakes or pronounce a word incorrectly. But we do care if you think that studying the language for four years and studying abroad in Spain gives you much of an insight into life as a Latino, by far the dominant Spanish-speaking group in the United States. Frankly, I personally don’t care about your visit to Madrid. In fact, I’ve sent my entire undergraduate life as a Latin American and Latino studies double major avoiding taking a class on the history of Spain. In terms of linguistic and cultural development, Spain — a country significantly smaller than Argentina — plays a much less important role than Latin America, especially within the United States.

In this regard, Penn students are lucky if they decide to pursue a language minor or major. As someone pursuing an East Asian languages and civilization minor with a concentration in Japanese, I am very thankful that we are required to take cultural classes in addition to language courses. Simply taking these language courses wasn’t enough to teach me about the culture. Sure, there were glimpses: the different grammar patterns for showing respect or familiarity, the modesty expressed towards anyone in your “in-group,” the name suffixes. But these give me little knowledge of how to navigate daily life in Japan — I would have to study the culture and visit Japan to really understand that.

So Penn students, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that taking four semesters of a language makes us competent in the language, much less the culture. I would never delude myself into thinking I now know Japanese simply because I took four semesters of it.

And unless you actively engage in the culture within which the language is couched, you have very little idea of what native speakers actually experience. Spanish is so popular in U.S. universities because of people like me and my family, the 16.7 percent of the U.S. population that is injecting Spanish into “everyday” American culture — through our food, our actors with Spanish names and our unabashedly infectious music. We are among a group of people who refuse to give up our native languages just because we’ve migrated to a new land. Instead, we are making the United States — a notoriously monolingual land — learn the language of our neighbors.

But please keep in mind that it goes beyond learning the language. If you tell me you are learning Spanish because you want to backpack through Europe, but you care little about the challenges facing 16.7 percent of people in the U.S., I will give you the side-eye and politely exit the conversation. Personally, I don’t care if you’re learning Spanish because you think it’s an easy language to fulfill a pesky requirement, or if you’re doing it because your best friend is from Honduras and you want to be able to understand their music. Just know that fulfilling a requirement is not the same as understanding a language or its accompanying culture. Learning the language means little without learning about its people.

Yessenia Gutierrez is a College senior from Hollywood, Fla. She can be reached at You can follow her @YessiWrites. “Yessi can” runs biweekly during the summer.

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