"Spanish was the first European language spoken in this country."

Tim Kaine on Thursday, November 3rd, 2016 in a speech in Phoenix

Tim Kaine is right, Spanish was first European language spoken in United States

Tim Kaine delivers speech in Spanish in Phoenix, Ariz. (Nov. 3, 2016)

Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine touted his language skills in Phoenix by delivering a speech in Spanish, saying his ticket would focus on immigration reform and an economy that works for all.

Kaine spoke to a crowd in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood about the United States’ immigrant fabric, comprised over centuries with people from all parts of the world.

"And people sometimes forget – and some may not even know – that the Hispanic community has been part of our country since the Spanish arrived in St. Augustine in 1565. That was well before the British landed in North America," Kaine said Nov. 3. "Spanish was the first European language spoken in this country."

We decided to follow Kaine on his history tour and wondered if he was right about the Spanish language’s roots in the United States.

The United States does not have an official national language, yet 31 states have laws establishing English as their official tongue, according to the CIA World Factbook.

English is the dominant language across the states and Spanish the second-most common. Of about 291.5 million people, 5 years and older, an estimated 37.6 million speak Spanish at home, according to 2011 Census Bureau data (the latest we could find). Chinese follows, spoken by more than 2.8 million people.

And while there is no definitive data, the Census Bureau estimates there are more than 300 languages spoken in the United States.

Se habla español

Linguist experts we interviewed all agreed with Kaine, saying he was right about Spanish being the first European language spoken in the United States.

It all ties back to Florida.

In many textbooks that deal with the history of the Spanish language, there are statements similar to Kaine’s, said Sonia Ramírez Wohlmuth, a senior instructor of world languages at the University of South Florida.

She referred us to page 211 of a textbook on language and linguistic diversity in the United States that says:

"Of the European explorers who reached North America during the Age of Discovery, the Spanish arrived first. ... Exploration of the Southeast began in 1513, when the first governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce de León, arrived on the coast of Florida during his quest for the fountain of youth. This marked the first recorded presence of the Spanish on what would eventually be U.S. soil."

In the late 1520s, an expedition led by Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez landed near present-day Tampa Bay.

But it was a failure, because almost everyone was killed or died before they could report back, said Richard A. Rhodes, a linguistics professor at University of California, Berkeley.

Then there’s St. Augustine.

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is regarded as the United States’ oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin. It was founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a conquistador from Spain.

"Spanish was the first language spoken by conquistadors and settlers who founded St. Augustine (San Agustín in Spanish, after the saint)," said Evelina Guzauskyte, an associate professor of Spanish at Wellesley College.

The British and the French did not arrive until later, and the Portuguese were occupying other lands, Guzauskyte said.

The Observatory of the Spanish Language and Hispanic Cultures in the United States at Harvard University also told us about an explorer (born in what’s now Mexico to parents from Spain) who left an inscription in New Mexico in 1605, that says in Spanish: "pasó por aquí el adelantado Juan de Oñate."

Archeology Southwest translates the full inscription to: "There passed this way the Adelantado (conqueror) Don Juan de Oñate from the discovering of the South Sea on the 16th of April 1605."

The first permanent English settlement in North America was in 1607 at Jamestown, Va. The Pilgrims arrived until 1620 in present-day Massachusetts.

Clinton’s campaign highlighted a PBS post about the history of Spanish in the United States.

"Spanish actually antedates English in the areas that now make up the composite United States — a fact that surprises many Americans," says part of the post. "In terms of continuity and longevity in the United States, the Spanish language is second only to Native American languages that were spoken for centuries prior to colonization."

Our ruling

Tim Kaine said, "Spanish was the first European language spoken in this country."

Linguistic experts tell us that’s accurate. Even though English is the dominant language in the United States, the first permanent English settlement came 42 years after explorers from Spain founded St. Augustine in Florida. Their primary language was Spanish.

Kaine’s statement rates True.