Voices

Spanish: speak the language of 400 million people

By Catherine Mansfield

22 August 2014 - 15:28

In the recent Languages for the Future report, Spanish was highlighted as the most important language for people in the UK to learn. In the third of our series of posts on the ten languages in the report, the British Council's Catherine Mansfield explains why.

Spanish is the only major language not declining at A-level

Back when I was at secondary school in the 1990s, Spanish was a fairly unusual option as a second language. In fact, it was sheer luck that my school even offered it, as this undoubtedly altered the course of my life. Over a decade after taking my Spanish A-level, I’m an MA-qualified Spanish translator, working in marketing at the British Council’s Bogotá office and married to a lovely Colombian. None of this would have happened, had my school been one of the many that offered only French and German.

Since then, the tables have turned. Spanish overtook German as the second-most popular language at GCSE in 2008, and has been growing ever since. In fact, Spanish is now the only major language to be bucking the downward trend at A-level, staying in demand while other languages decline.

The language’s popularity with teenagers is sometimes attributed to its influence on popular culture. With 30 to 40 million native Spanish speakers in the US, the language has made its mark on American music, film and TV. Perhaps the number of celebrities with at least a smattering of Spanish make it seem more accessible in the UK, where foreign languages are often perceived as a relatively 'difficult' school subject.

More people speak Spanish than English

One huge advantage of Spanish is the access it offers to such a wide range of countries and cultures. It’s the second-most widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese), with 400 million native speakers, and official status in a staggering 21 countries, spanning South, Central and North America, as well as Africa and Europe.

There are differences in how Spanish is spoken around the world

But how much does Spanish differ across all these countries? The main difference is the accent, which can vary greatly from place to place. The Argentinian accent is arguably the most distinctive. Argentinians pronounce the double 'l' of 'me llamo' (my name is) as 'me shamo', while the more standard pronunciation is 'me yamo'. Even my native-speaker husband says he has trouble understanding the Argentinian accent at times, which is reassuring when I find myself struggling!

There are also some grammatical differences and many differences in vocabulary, particularly for day-to-day items such as clothes and food. Juice for example is 'zumo' in Spain, but 'jugo' in most parts of Latin America. As for clothing, in most Spanish-speaking countries the word for 't-shirt' is 'camiseta', but it’s 'remera' in Argentina, 'polera' in Chile, and 'playera' in Mexico. You can find even more examples on Asi hablamos, a great website for Spanish words from around the world.

Distinctive Spanish phrases give insight into different cultures

While you might struggle with some accents and trip up on a new word or two, the good news is that all the different varieties of Spanish are basically mutually intelligible. This makes Spanish a backpacker’s dream, and the starting point for discovering a world of fascinating cultures.

Spanish reflects the cultures of the many people who speak it, and therefore has a great number of stories to tell. My favourite idiom is (unsurprisingly) a Colombian one: 'dar papaya'. This literally means 'to give a papaya', but figuratively means 'to make it easy for somebody to rob, trick or mock you'. In a historically insecure country, it’s a typically Colombian message: if you go around flashing your fancy new iPhone, you’re 'giving a papaya', so don’t be surprised if someone takes it from you. It’s a sensible rule to live your life by, neatly embedded into the language. Follow the rule of the papaya and all will be well!

Spanish is famous for its diminutives

Another distinctive aspect of Spanish is its use of diminutives. The usual form is to add '-ito' or '-ico' to the end of a word, which can be used to create affectionate terms: 'Juanito' (from Juan), 'mi amorcito' (my little love). However, in Latin America, everything ends up as a diminutive: it’s not a 'café' (coffee), it’s a 'cafecito'. It’s not a 'cerveza' (beer), it’s a 'cervecita'. This gives the language a warmth and friendliness that reflects the typically laid-back attitudes of the Latin American people.

One telling usage of the diminutive is when it’s applied to the word 'ahora'. Don’t be fooled by your Spanish dictionary telling you that 'ahora' means 'now'. Ask your Latin American friend what time they’re going out and they might reply 'ahorita'. This could be in 20 minutes or perhaps an hour; it’s an undefined quantity. At least in social situations, Latin Americans have a famously ambivalent attitude towards time and there’s no point trying to fight it. Embrace the word 'ahorita' and just go with the flow!

Speaking Spanish helps companies do business in Latin America

The same element that makes Spanish such a culturally rich language -- the fact that it is spoken in so many countries -- is also the key to its potential in the world of work. While Spain is still the UK’s eighth-largest goods export market, valued at £8.5 billion in 2012, the real scope for growth can be seen in the emerging countries of Latin America.

With a combined population of over 221 million people, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico have all been identified by the Confederation of British Industry as upcoming economies. Mexico, for example, is one of the most open trading nations in the world, although its potential for business with the UK has not yet been fulfilled.

According to the Languages for the Future report, the UK government recognises that trade relations with Latin American economies like Colombia are underdeveloped. However, this looks likely to change. The Colombian airline Avianca has launched a direct flight between Bogotá and London. Both the UK's former Foreign Secretary William Hague and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have visited Colombia in the last year, and the Prince of Wales plans to visit the country in October. These signs suggest this particular Latin American country will be one to watch in the coming years.

In the context of all this growth, and with currently only four per cent of the UK’s adult population able to have a conversation in Spanish, even a few words could potentially go a long way.

Spanish's popularity is unlikely to be eclipsed

Spanish is stronger now than it has ever been. But with languages such as Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese on the rise, will Spanish lose some of its popular appeal?

Personally, I doubt it. As a Romance language, it shares some roots with English, not to mention its close connection to French (still, by far, the most widely taught language in UK schools). While keen linguists and entrepreneurs will inevitably find themselves drawn to the challenge of learning non-European languages, the familiarity of many aspects of Spanish means it is likely to attract a broader language-learning public.

Beyond practical concerns, the opportunities that Spanish offers to discover a vast number of cultures, as well as the business possibilities emerging from new Spanish-speaking markets, makes me quietly confident that Spanish will continue to grow as a popular language for learners of all ages.

Download the full Languages for the Future report.

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