La Mezquita, or Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, southern Spain, is considered one of the treasures of humanity and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its majestic geometry embodies the encounter of Africa, Europe, and Asia that unfolded in complex ways in medieval Spain and helped shape the modern Spanish language.
Spanish dominates foreign-language study in the US: 865,000 college students took it in 2009, followed by French (216,000) and German (96,000). Spanish enrolls more than all other world languages combined. In K-12 public schools, the dominance is even greater: 2007-08 figures showed 6.4 million taking Spanish (72% of all foreign-language enrollment), French a very distant second at 1.3 million.
Why is the “language of Cervantes” so widely studied (if not always mastered)? Here are some of the more common reasons:
A large and growing population. The US’s Spanish-speaking population, over 40 million, surpasses all but a few Latin American countries. Many see Census numbers alone as proving the importance of Spanish and making it “the language to learn.” Not to mention geography: the US shares a border with the most populous Hispanic country in the world, and millions more Spanish speakers live in the Caribbean, not far from Florida’s shores.
Community service. Idealistic young people in substantial numbers pursue Spanish to serve immigrant community needs such as literacy, health, legal aid, and education, or in missions of faith. In turn, those interactions often become an arena for “service learning” where classroom knowledge of the language is put to the enriching test of real-life experience.
It’s “easy”? The perception of Spanish as easy to learn is widespread; college students typically see it as the shortcut to meeting language requirements. It’s a half-truth: Spanish really is a marvel of grammatical and phonetic consistency, due in part to Nebrija’s 1492 Grammar (one of the earliest for a modern language) and the 1713 founding of the Royal Spanish Academy. But true mastery of the language is anything but easy to attain.
It’s “funny”? Fascination with “Spanglish”— incorporation of English words and patterns into immigrant speech—treats as odd the natural result of language contact between populations. In any case, this linguistic resource hardly amounts to a dialect, much less a separate language. Somewhat different is the popularity of “Faux Spanish”: “no problemo”, “perfectamundo”, “mucho macho”, or “el grande jefe” convey a playful, at times mocking, attitude towards Spanish and its speakers.
Laborers. Many North Americans associate Spanish with poorer, often undocumented, immigrants—an understandable perception based on current media and political obsessions, and perhaps personal experience. In this view, the language is useful to communicate with, and manage, laborers. It’s not really a “serious” language, though: this was actually the message a prestigious private school in Virginia explicitly placed on its website in the recent past, with the boast that for reasons of academic rigor, they proudly offered only French as a foreign language. The same unexamined premise was shared by the judge in an Amarillo, Texas family court who infamously, in August 1995, ordered a Mexican-born immigrant mother to stop speaking in Spanish to her five-year-old daughter, as using that language constituted “child abuse” and would condemn the girl to a future “as a housemaid.” (Both the school and the judge did later about-faces in the light of avalanches of public criticism.)
A “quaint” culture. It’s common to hear people express love for the culture, often in terms of salsa (cuisine) and salsa (music and dance). Adjectives such as “colorful,” “quaint,” simple”, and “exotic” paint a Hispanic world of peasants, rural and village life, “traditions”. This view can unintentionally place Hispanic or Latino people in a primitive past, even outside of time. An associated perception sees Spanish as the language of places college students on Spring break and other tourists go to run wild, places—many of them—that the United States once conquered, occupied, or dominated. Indeed, this is the other side of the coin from language-of-manual-laborers. A long history of power relations has planted such deeply-rooted habits of thought.
Quite a mix of reasons (and it’s only a sampling)! Sincere interest in other cultures is there, as are a calling to service, faith, and love of justice. So, too, are simplistic romanticization, patronizing superiority, and power agendas.
Here are some other, crucial reasons why Spanish matters and why learning it is one of the best things you can do in the early 21st century:
A global language. Spanish now ranks second in the world in number of native speakers, with over 410 million (approximately 1 in 20 members of the human race), trailing only Mandarin Chinese. English, with over 360 million worldwide, is in third place, right behind (though when we add the number of people who speak English as a second language, it moves into second place). Portuguese, which I like to call Spanish’s “fraternal twin”—no living language is nearly so close a relation to English—has over 220 million native speakers, mostly in rising economic powerhouse Brazil; Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese to a considerable degree and have an automatic head-start in learning the language.
Economic power. The US’s 53 million Hispanics (1 in 6 people!) spend some $1.3 trillion annually; Spanish-speaking countries’ combined GDP, $3.4 trillion, equals industrial giant Germany; add sister nation Brazil, and at $5.9 trillion it matches Japan. There are countless markets to sell to, jobs to be done, texts to be translated, by people with significant mastery of the language (inseparable, in the end, from cultural understanding).
A world civilization. Every language bears witness to a people’s experience and creativity. For Spanish that includes ancient Iberian, Celtic, Roman, and Germanic legacies, as well as the unique Rom or ‘Gypsy’ presence (Spanish gitanos, a word derived from egiptanos and bearing witness to the passage of part of that wandering people into North Africa via Egypt); a near-millennium of Christian-Jewish-Muslim coexistence; the world’s first global empire; and, today, twenty multicultural societies of indigenous, African, European, and Asian heritage. Just one example of the cultural richness that Spanish embodies: in societies viewed as overwhelmingly Christian, one says ¡Ojalá! (Arabic Inshallah) for “I hope so!”
The Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Likely the world’s best-known and loved work of fiction, Cervantes’s Don Quixote crowns a literature that includes the brilliant 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; the greatest of modern stylists, José Martí, who died fighting for Cuban independence; Chile’s beloved poet Pablo Neruda, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges with his metaphysical mysteries, and master storytellers of our lifetime like Colombia’s García Márquez, Peru’s Vargas Llosa, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Chile’s Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez of the Dominican Republic.
Recovering one’s own heritage. Significant numbers of US-born (or raised) Hispanics are English-dominant, even monolingual (note that the Hispanic/Latino population, at 53 million, is larger than the Spanish-speaking figure of 40 million). For “heritage learners,” as the language-teaching profession calls those who grew up with significant home exposure to Spanish, learning it can be a powerful reclaiming of family and cultural legacy.
An outlook on life. To master Spanish is to learn another way of being in the world, a peculiar combination of seriousness, humor, hierarchy, and dignity. The native English speaker learns to tuck away that ever-present, imperial pronoun “I” (the only one English capitalizes!), taking on a more sparingly-used yo: Spanish embodies a certain modesty. One learns words for relationships and customs English can’t name: compadre or comadre if you’re their kid’s godparent, tocayo if you share the same name, sobremesa for staying at the table talking after a meal. Saying Nos vemos mañana (See you tomorrow), one often adds si Dios quiere (God willing): a small linguistic bow to the Deity, or simply to life’s unknowns.
There are many valid reasons to learn Spanish; it’s fine as preparation for a Cancun vacation or to improve HR. But a global economic force, a major world literature, and the quest for genuine intercultural fluency offer other motivations that can be mind-expanding, even life-changing.
Copyright ©2013 by Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved.
Pablo J. Davis provides professionally-certified translation/interpreting services, and cultural coaching, through Interfluency.com. He has formal graduate training in Latin American History. A version of this article was published by The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) on Fri., Sep. 27, 2013.