Spanish is not just a handy language for World Cup referees. In a 2013 report entitled “Languages for the Future”, the British Council cited Spanish as the most important language to learn. It’s not hard to see why: approximately 470 million people speak Spanish as a native language, 60 million as a second language and 20 million students are studying it as a foreign language.
According to El Instituto Cervantes, the organisation charged with the promotion of Spanish language and cultures, demand is highest in the United States- unsurprising considering the geography, immigration patterns and population growth in the country over the past three decades.
Research carried out for the Telefonica Foundation shows that bilateral trade increases some 290% when Spanish is the shared language of commerce– a figure hinting at the growth in buying power among Latin American countries and the commercial benefits the language allows foreign speakers.
Chris Hoyt, director of Seatle-based Langua Travel confirms that employment and business opportunities are driving factors for US students to study Spanish.
“Over 38 million Americans speak Spanish at home, so if you are selling a product or a service, and have trained representatives who speak Spanish, you are greatly expanding your customer base,” he says.
Not to mention, the language also has permanent place in the social framework of the US.
“We also see a lot of doctors, nurses and medical professionals. They often have patients who speak only Spanish and feel that to give proper care, they must learn the language themselves,” says Hoyt.
“It’s an ethical obligation and professional necessity, especially in the southwestern US.”
Interest isn’t coming just from the US. Students around the world are waking up the fact that Spanish is a useful language professionally and academically.
In 2013, Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs José Manuel García-Margallo called Spanish the country’s “most valuable asset” as it attempts to forge trade ties in Asia.
And the number of students worldwide taking Instituto Cervantes’ competency exam, the Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE) has consistently risen since the exam was introduced in 1988 to reach some 66,000 in 2014 signaling the further professionalisation of the language.
As demand for higher education grows globally, speaking Spanish can also create opportunities in study destinations that are often cheaper than traditional English speaking countries.
As students realise the cost benefits of earning a degree in Spanish, private language centres have found university preparation courses for European and non-EU students are becoming profitable additions to their portfolio.
“Spanish hasn’t grown in those types of courses like it has for English but we’ve seen the market start to heat up for potential growth in university preparation courses,” confirms Antonio Anadon, owner of Group Ideal which has some1,500 students annually interested in university exam preparation courses and year-long university foundation classes at its 12 centres around Spain.
In general, Spanish language students are becoming more academically focused says Anadon. Semester-long credit bearing courses continue to be a huge draw for students studying at universities around the world.
Even at the 10 summer camps Enforex operates, demand for academic level classes is growing. “The idea of a study vacation is less important. It’s much more important to do academic courses,” says Anadon. “In the summer camps that usually include sports and summer activities we’re starting to introduce academic summer camps because people want to have more of an academic focus in their free time.”
The trend toward academic Spanish could attract a new type of student and spell relief for Spain’s struggling private language sector which has seen growth in student weeks stagnate in the past few years.
Babylon Idiomas has been the most recent victim of the downturn, closing doors to its four locations across Spain after not paying employees for four months.
“There’s a whole raft of markets that have just become available to us like China and Korea or are about to become available to us like India, Thailand, Indonesia and the whole of the Middle East,” says Bob Burger, Director of Marketing at Malaca Instituto in Malaga, Spain. “All of these markets are oriented toward language plus preparation for university.”
The Spanish government has also begun to see the economic benefits of Spanish as a foreign language.
In 2012, the Ministry of Industry launched the ‘Study in Spain’ website which gives potential students information on: universities that offer graduate and post-graduate courses; Instituto Cervantes-accredited language schools and business schools across the country; visa information, and information on how to prepare for their trip and what to expect to find in the regions around Spain.
Central and South American destinations offer students a distinct experience wholly different from Spain’s European fare. Adventure in tropical climates, exposure to emerging economies, volunteer opportunities and improving university systems are attracting more students to the region annually.
Security and competitive pricing are also facilitating the flow of students to Latin America.
“The most important market in the region historically has always been Mexico but it’s been affected by the lack of security recently,” says Anadon. “But we think it’s going to see a surge in the coming year.”
In 2013, Ideal Group launched its Latin American chain, Academia Columbus in Colombia and subsequently acquired schools in Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica.
Anadaon says he’s seen interest rise in Ecuador and Peru but Colombia has pulled ahead to be the fastest-growing Spanish language destination in the world.
Rob Danks, founder of the Study Spanish COLOMBIA says the biggest factor in this change is the improving status of Colombia as an “undiscovered destination”.
Danks started Study Spanish COLOMBIA as a free hobby website in 2013 but has quickly turned into a profit generating agency for many Spanish language providers.
“We have some excellent Spanish schools here,” he says, “from formal universities like the prestigious Universidad EAFIT through to independent Spanish schools like Medellin Language Academy. Both are receiving record numbers of students.”
He added that Study Spanish COLOMBIA are on track to generate over 150 million Colombian pesos in sales for EAFIT University alone this year. “We have quickly become their largest selling agent and to be honest it’s an easy sell.”
Meanwhile, Coined, who run a network of Spanish schools, volunteer schemes and internships throughout Latin America, have noted particular growth in Buenos Aires and Córdoba in Argentina and Santiago de Chile.
Karolina Goralska, Coined’s International Relations spokesperson said: “More and more people, especially higher education students and young graduates are looking for professional hands-on experience in a Spanish-speaking environment, where they can not only improve their language skills but also learn about the local work culture.”
Ideal Group plans to open two more schools in the region under its premium school line, Don Quijote. “There are many Spanish schools in the region but none that gives the level of exclusive teaching and European quality that Academia Colombus/Don Quijote offers.”
Courses targeting students interested in university credit bearing courses or students looking to continue on to a university degree course in Latin America will be part of the group’s remit he says.
Universities are playing an important role in the region’s language exports. National level initiatives in several countries have been launched to promote university systems to foreign students.
Last year the Ministries of Education and Culture in Colombia laid out plans to make the country the “best Spanish language destination” and launched the Spanish in Colombia web portal that provides information about the 20 universities that offer Spanish as a foreign language, learning resources for Spanish teachers and cultural, industrial and tourism information about the country.
Similarly, the government in Chile launched a website to coordinate the internationalisation strategies of 21 higher education institutions in the country.
At this year’s Foro Internacional del Español, Lu Jingsheng, the Chinese government’s National Coordinator for Spanish, said with 40,000 students enrolled at Spanish courses the increased demand for the language is “dizzying” however there are not enough teachers to keep up.
Centro Adelante in St. Petersburg became the country’s first language centre accredited by Instituto Cervantes in 2008. “Spanish is very popular in St. Petersburg,” says Olga Evenko.
“Many students learn it at university and come to improve with us and many want to go to university in Spain so come to study Spanish with us first. Those who work are just interested in learning the language to communicate when they travel.”
Global enrolments at Instituto Cervantes centres in 87 cities have quadruple from 2003 to 2013 driven mostly by demand from students in the United States, Brazil and France.
Indisputably, English is the lingua franca of the world, but Spanish’s second place position means demand for the language won’t wane any time soon.
“Spanish isn’t learned in place of English. English is something necessary today worldwide,” remarks Anadon. “But Spanish is the language of the future because the important economies of the future speak Spanish and when an economy begins to operate in one language, everything else follows.”
Additional reporting by Sara Custer
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