Expert Commentary

Political effects of the Spanish language in the United States: Survey experiments and demographic analysis

2014 study in Political Communication that uses survey experiments and voter analysis to show different political responses to Spanish among Democrats and Republicans.

The return of millions of American children to school may take on particular significance this fall, as minority students are expected to make up the majority in U.S. public schools for the first time. Such a milestone highlights important public-policy challenges, including the persistent achievement gap for minority students and those with English as a second language, and the discrimination many can face.

While U.S.-born Hispanic and Asian children make up most of the growth, they’re part of a broader shift in the United States toward being a majority-minority nation. But how do such changes influence public opinion and attitudes? Do they create a perceived threat among white Americans, hardening attitudes toward immigration and minorities? Or does greater interaction between groups have the potential to increase tolerance? Social scientists have been working to more precisely study such questions, testing how the Spanish language itself may take on political overtones and even experimenting with randomized control trials in everyday situations.

A 2014 study “One Language, Two Meanings: Partisanship and Responses to Spanish,” published in Political Communication, examines if immigration attitudes reflect partisan positions, or if they’re one of the rare “easy” issues where personal experiences can disrupt previously held attitudes (a working version of the paper is also available). The author, Daniel Hopkins of Georgetown University, first conducts experiments measuring how Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes toward minorities change when they’re exposed to a brief immigration-related cue — the Spanish language. (Approximately 1,700 non-Hispanic whites took part in the experiments.) Two series of participants were shown a news clip on immigration with a voiceover that was manipulated to be in fluent English, accented English or in Spanish. All videos had English subtitles. Afterward, viewers were asked to respond to a survey that included the question: “Do you support or oppose a national policy of allowing illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay in this country permanently and earn U.S. citizenship?”

The second part of the paper analyzed neighborhood-level election returns from California’s Proposition 227, a 1998 ballot initiative that proposed restricting bilingual education. Here Hopkins compared whether voters who lived in areas where ballot materials were provided in Spanish as well as English voted differently than those who lived in areas where only English was used at the polling station.

The study’s findings show:

  • For the survey tests, the largest fraction of Republican respondents who strongly opposed the proposed pathway to citizenship came from the group who heard the Spanish-language voiceover. The difference in strong opposition between those who had heard Spanish and those who had heard some form of English was 6.3 percentage points the first time the experiment was run, and 5.8 percentage points the second time.
  • For Democrats, no such significant difference was found. In the first round of the experiment, Democrats who heard the Spanish voiceover were only 2.5 percentage points more likely to strongly oppose a path to citizenship, and the second time, strong opposition actually dropped by 1.4 percentage points for those who had heard Spanish.
  • These results held even when controlling for factors such as education, income, and how frequently respondents heard Spanish in their day-to-day lives.
  • When voting on California’s Proposition 227, the more Republicans there were in a neighborhood, the greater the impact of Spanish-language voting materials on the likelihood that people would vote to restrict bilingual education. Moving from an area with 16.7% registered Republicans to 69.0% increased the effect of Spanish-language materials by 2.7 percentage points.
  • As with the survey responses, there was no consistent link in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods between the presence of Spanish at polling stations and how people voted.

Taken together the results indicate that Spanish has become a politicized symbol, provoking different responses among non-Hispanic whites according to their partisan affiliation. Immigration therefore seems to be a typical political issue, and “to the extent that Americans’ responses to other immigration-related cues mirror their responses to Spanish, immigration is unlikely to realign many Americans’ existing partisanship.”

What is not clear from these experiments is the psychology driving these responses. Further research may help to determine whether the link between peoples’ response to Spanish, their partisanship and attitudes toward immigration is a direct one, or whether it is influenced by related issues such as attitudes towards Latins or issues of national identity.

Related research: A 2014 research roundup summarizes a range of articles on related demographic trends in the United States and globally. For a review of research into public attitudes towards immigration, see a 2014 paper “Public Attitudes Toward Immigration,” published in the Annual Review of Political Science by Hopkins and Jens Haimueller of Stanford, which synthesizes 100 comprehensive studies along with their own research.


Keywords: Latino, Hispanic, prejudice, racism