The Spanish speaker who devotes a few hours to reading the Cervantes Institute’s 2016 Report cannot fail to be filled with enthusiasm. The growth in the use of the Spanish language which has been reported in recent years has continued and the projections towards 2050 indicate that our language will continue to expand. At the moment 472 million people have it as their mother tongue. However, if we want to look at the broader picture then to this figure we must add the 55 million who speak Spanish as a second language: those who have learned it from their partners, acquired it in homes where more than one language is spoken or learned it for professional reasons.
Two principal conclusions can be drawn from these figures: after Mandarin, which predominates in China, Spanish is the second mother tongue of the world and is also the second most widely spoken language when all other users are added to its total number of speakers. It is also the fastest growing language in terms of native speakers as population growth rates are higher in Latin America than in China and in the traditional English speaking nations. Another factor that should be taken into account is that 21 million people are studying Spanish in 106 countries. And even more growth in the number of Spanish speakers can be expected; on the basis of current demographic trends it’s expected that 7.8% of the world’s population will speak our language by 2050. It’s not for nothing that the Instituto Cervantes speaks of “Spanish: A Living Language”.
For those of us who are not specialists, the report is full of interesting findings. One of them is the wide distribution of Spanish speakers across the world. Here in the United States, there are over 42 million of us, a fact which confirms the political, economic, social and cultural relevance of Latinos in this country, which, more often than not, has welcomed us with openness and generosity. Apart from Spain, in the European Union there are 1,400,000 Spanish speakers; 130,000 in Israel; 124,000 in Switzerland; 108,000 in Japan and 175,000 in Algeria. As well as that there are 165,000 in that small republic of Belize, of which we hear so little in spite of it being one of the nations of our continent. And a final surprise: the data on Equatorial Guinea indicates that 800,000 people, about two thirds of the population, communicate in the language of Cervantes.
Chapter 2 of the report deals with a subject of great interest, Spanish as an economic asset. Spanish speakers in North America, that is to say those living in the United States, Mexico and Canada, make up 78% of the region’s purchasing power. And let’s not forget that Mexico has the largest population in Latin America with more than 122 million people, far ahead of Colombia with 46 million. Finally, it’s worth noting that Spanish speaking countries account for 6.4% of global GDP.
All this explains why Spanish is already considered a “market language”. Just the economic activity generated by the teaching of Spanish across the world, involving infrastructure, teachers, books and educational materials, software and more, generated 900 million USD worth of economic activity in 2015. When the available data on languages and internet use is considered, the importance of Spanish can be clearly seen: 7.9% of the world’s users communicate in our language and in the two main global social networks, Facebook and Twitter, Spanish ranks second in usage statistics.
From a very early age, in my native Venezuela, as a result of family advice and personal decision, I made learning English a priority and in due course became fully bilingual, and thus also bicultural, since the command of a language submerges us in the culture from which it emanates. English was and still is the language of business, commerce and the global economy and from there it made the leap to displace French as the language of international diplomacy. This predominance of English is a fact. However, when we consider the previously mentioned statistics regarding the number of Spanish speakers in the United States, it’s evident that the argument in favour of public education in the United States being bilingual with Spanish being prioritized as the second language is based on solid foundations in demographic, linguistic, economic and social realities. Suffice it to consider the state of things in the world to realise that Spanish is, above all, a language the vast majority of whose speakers are committed to dialogue, peace, work and economic growth.
Leopoldo Martínez tweets at @lecumberry