Academics in Puerto Rico debate future of Spanish language

The king and queen of Spain flew to the former colony of Puerto Rico to help launch on Tuesday what is considered the world's most important event involving the Spanish language.

The royal couple joined more than 200 writers, academics and experts who traveled to the U.S. territory to discuss in part the challenges the Spanish language faces during a weeklong conference organized by the Royal Spanish Academy. The organization meets every three years and regulates a language spoken by more than 500 million people.

"This congress is for all of us," said Dario Villanueva, the academy's director. "We are all together owners of a language that is spread across four continents."

The use of Spanish has grown by 800 percent in the past decade, and King Felipe VI noted that it is the most studied foreign language. He also said the United States is expected to become a Spanish-speaking country by the year 2050.

"Spanish has stopped being a marginalized language of immigrants and has integrated itself as a social language and one of culture in American society," he said.

It is the first time the academy holds its conference in a place where English is so widely spoken, although Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla — who apologized for his rural Puerto Rican accent in which R's are gutteral — said Spanish is still the island's dominating language.

"We're a place that with 117 years of political ties with the United States keeps talking, keeps writing, keeps praying, keeps dreaming and loving in Spanish," he said to robust applause.

Academics also applauded the creation of a new online system that will certify the degree to which someone dominates Spanish. Anyone seeking to certify their skills can take the online test at centers that will be established across the world, with the first ones opening in Brazil, the U.S. and China.

The conference comes as the academy works to create a dictionary for digital natives and debates whether to accept words such as "selfie" in its revered dictionary.

Villanueva told The Associated Press that he is excited about the new dictionary because it will allow the academy to add more words and links to other educational databases. He noted that the academy's current online dictionary saw 63 million queries alone last month, many of them from people in their 20s.

"The possibilities are extraordinary," he said. "They were born in a digital universe, and as a result, the way they approach the language is completely different."

Some people have accused the academy of diluting the language in recent years and eliminating strict grammar rules that millions had to memorize in school. Villanueva, however, noted it is not the academy that changes the language.

"It is us, the Spanish speakers, who change words and their meanings, and the academy registers that," he said.

One debate the academy faces now is whether to include the word "selfie" in its dictionary. Villanueva said he feels they should wait to see if the word is only a fad among Spanish speakers or will form part of their permanent vocabulary.

Personally, Villanueva prefers "auto-foto."

"While I believe we should not place boundaries on the influences of other languages, it's best to find a Spanish equivalent than import a word from another tongue," he said.

The debate, however, is still open.


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