Why has Spanish become so popular?

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I was watching Spain play Sweden in the Euro 2008 championship last night (Spain won 2-1) when I saw this Nike advert about Fernando Torres, a Liverpool FC player. It brought to my mind the fact that Spanish is increasingly becoming more popular in primary and secondary schools across the country. It also made me think about the reasons why Spanish is becoming so popular. Unfortunately it also reminded me of the hostility some teachers of French and German feel against this invader.

Traditionally French and German have been the most popular Modern Foreign Languages taught in the UK. However there has been a trend in recent years that has seen a monumental growth of the popularity of Spanish, so much so that in some schools Spanish has become the number one language, often to the detriment of German.

I am a Spanish and German teacher, so I welcome the progress made by Spanish, but I am also a Germanist, so the fact that German is being pushed out of the curriculum worries me greatly: I’d like to remain a languages (plural) teacher, not just a Spanish teacher.

What really saddens me, however, is the attitude of some fellow MFL teachers, who clearly see the Spanish advance as an encroaching threat, not an exciting new opportunity for pupils. These teachers were mostly educated in an era, the 60s and 70s, when Spanish was not seen as an important language for business or culture.

Spain then was a pariah state, one of the only remaining dictatorships in Europe, having struggled to rebuild itself after a devastating civil war with no Marshall Plan Aid and having followed a misguided policy of self-sufficiency during the 40s. The problem is that that was then but some MFL teachers still think that Spain is a less developed, less sophisticated country whose language is not as worthy of being learnt as say French, German or Italian.

These preconceptions and prejudices annoy me intensely because the Spain these teachers knew I only know from History books (I was one year old when Franco died and Spain transitioned peacefully to democracy). They, of course, assume that things haven’t changed much since. 

I also find ironic that MFL teachers who have spent countless open evenings extolling the virtues of learning MFL in general and fighting against an increasingly hostile attitude from parents and government, now switch sides to attack the apparent popularity of another Modern Language, Spanish, using the same misconceived rhetoric of prejudice and stereotypes.

Having been at the butt end of countless Manuel from Fawlty Towers jokes (which I take on the chin, after all it’s a very funny programme), I can bear witness to the fact that this stereo-typification is alive and well amongst people of a certain age. It’s funny but it does not represent the typical view most British young people have of Spanish people today: Manuel the waiter has metamorphosed into Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Alonso or Rafa Nadal, highlighting the fact that Spanish people are no longer perceived as poor and backward but as exciting, passionate and successful. Compare that to the average German or French stereotype and you have a partial answer as to why Spanish is becoming more popular.

Spanish is no longer the language you speak with your waiter while on holiday on the Costas. The facts are that Spanish has become the second most important business language in the world after English; Spanish companies now own the likes of Abbey, BAA and O2 among other companies in the UK and many other companies around the world; and the Spanish economy is the eighth largest economy in the world, bigger than that of Russia, Canada or India just to name three (out of 190 countries).

I am also not oblivious to the fact that Spanish is spoken by roughly half a billion native speakers in 21 other countries, mainly in Latin America and the United States, many more if you count those who speak it as a second language. Both Spain and Latin America have rich historical and cultural heritages, as well as a vibrant popular culture, making learning Spanish even more attractive to our young people.

I know I am probably preaching to the converted, but I sometimes feel so despondent that otherwise intelligent linguists persist in perceiving Spain by means of antiquated stereotypes that I want to say iros a la porra to the lot of them.

What is your experience? Do you feel the same way?

Click here to see similar adverts from the Nike website.

José Picardo

José is Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School and a Fellow of the RSA and Naace. He is interested in improving education and the way technology can be used to enhance and transform teaching and learning. José has been curating Box of Tricks since 2007 and holds a MA in ICT and Education.

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  • http://lynnehorn.edublogs.org/ Lynne

    Love the advert. In our school we can’t really offer any other languages other than French or Gaelic due to smaller numbers. I’ve always taken the stance that language learning is a skill and that pupils will go on and learn the languages they want and need, which indeed they do after they’ve left school – Japanese and Russian being at least two. My concern is that people still see French and Gaelic as being in some kind of competition – local language vs foreign language, whereas we think they should be doing both, all of our pupils do both in S1/2, they can then choose or continue to do both, although despite our attempts they tend not to go for both. My two Gaelic teachers both did French as well as Gaelic at school (they are native speakers) so we have two good role models.

  • http://lynnehorn.edublogs.org Lynne

    Love the advert. In our school we can’t really offer any other languages other than French or Gaelic due to smaller numbers. I’ve always taken the stance that language learning is a skill and that pupils will go on and learn the languages they want and need, which indeed they do after they’ve left school – Japanese and Russian being at least two. My concern is that people still see French and Gaelic as being in some kind of competition – local language vs foreign language, whereas we think they should be doing both, all of our pupils do both in S1/2, they can then choose or continue to do both, although despite our attempts they tend not to go for both. My two Gaelic teachers both did French as well as Gaelic at school (they are native speakers) so we have two good role models.

  • http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/lbilak/ Linda

    It has been completely the reverse here in Los Estados Unidos. I was a Spanish student in seventh grade in the mid seventies in my junior high. Spanish was THE language to study. The percentages fell Spanish 65% to French 35%. German and Italian were offered in High School, as well as Latin. Spanish had the stronghold and remained the most popular language. I became a Spanish teacher after graduating in the mid eighties.
    I was the only one in my entire college to graduate with a degree in Spanish Secondary Education 7-12. The demand for qualified language teachers has not stopped since then. New York State recognizes Languages Other than English as a critical area for teacher shortages.(along with Technology, Business and Physics) French majors hoping to get a teaching job are encouraged to study Spanish as well since the job market desires dually certified staff. Spanish majors are also encouraged but not as vehemently. German teachers better have a second certification or they will face a part time job. We have also seen a rise in interest in Russian that came and went. Recent talk has been the need to offer Mandarin Chinese. I argue you can’t find enough Spanish teachers-Good Luck producing teachers of Chinese!

  • http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/lbilak/ Linda

    It has been completely the reverse here in Los Estados Unidos. I was a Spanish student in seventh grade in the mid seventies in my junior high. Spanish was THE language to study. The percentages fell Spanish 65% to French 35%. German and Italian were offered in High School, as well as Latin. Spanish had the stronghold and remained the most popular language. I became a Spanish teacher after graduating in the mid eighties.
    I was the only one in my entire college to graduate with a degree in Spanish Secondary Education 7-12. The demand for qualified language teachers has not stopped since then. New York State recognizes Languages Other than English as a critical area for teacher shortages.(along with Technology, Business and Physics) French majors hoping to get a teaching job are encouraged to study Spanish as well since the job market desires dually certified staff. Spanish majors are also encouraged but not as vehemently. German teachers better have a second certification or they will face a part time job. We have also seen a rise in interest in Russian that came and went. Recent talk has been the need to offer Mandarin Chinese. I argue you can’t find enough Spanish teachers-Good Luck producing teachers of Chinese!

  • http://isabellejones.blogspot.com/ Isabelle Jones

    Thank you for this fantastic post, definitely one for my “promotion” Diigo collection.Thank you also for saying out loud what lots of us are thinking: the aim of learning a language is NOT only to go abroad buy a baguette, some frankfurters or a cerveza. It is a bit like telling kids maths come handy only to help you figure out how much money you can save -or waste-in the sales.
    A bit limited, isn’t it???
    Isabelle
    http://isabellejones.blogspot.com

  • http://isabellejones.blogspot.com/ Isabelle Jones

    Thank you for this fantastic post, definitely one for my “promotion” Diigo collection.Thank you also for saying out loud what lots of us are thinking: the aim of learning a language is NOT only to go abroad buy a baguette, some frankfurters or a cerveza. It is a bit like telling kids maths come handy only to help you figure out how much money you can save -or waste-in the sales.
    A bit limited, isn’t it???
    Isabelle
    http://isabellejones.blogspot.com

  • Emily

    I echo the same sentiment as Linda. In mi escuela secundaria, we have 3 Spanish teachers and only 1 teacher each for French and German. Maryland also considers Teachers of languages other than English a critical need area. My class sizes are huge for all levels, I have at least 25 students in each class.
    I recently spoke to my mentor from my college and was surprised to find out that they did not graduate 1 Spanish Ed major this year. This seemed odd to me, especially considering 4 years ago when I graduated there were at least 8 of us.
    I also find it interesting that Linda mentioned Mandarin, because my district this past year started teaching it in our middle schools and it is coming to my high school next year. Linda is right that Chinese teachers are very few and very FAR between! I am interested to see where the program will go.

  • Emily

    I echo the same sentiment as Linda. In mi escuela secundaria, we have 3 Spanish teachers and only 1 teacher each for French and German. Maryland also considers Teachers of languages other than English a critical need area. My class sizes are huge for all levels, I have at least 25 students in each class.
    I recently spoke to my mentor from my college and was surprised to find out that they did not graduate 1 Spanish Ed major this year. This seemed odd to me, especially considering 4 years ago when I graduated there were at least 8 of us.
    I also find it interesting that Linda mentioned Mandarin, because my district this past year started teaching it in our middle schools and it is coming to my high school next year. Linda is right that Chinese teachers are very few and very FAR between! I am interested to see where the program will go.

  • http://lisibo.blogspot.com/2008/06/animation-for-education-goes-ning.html Lisa

    Couldn’t agree more, José! Great post :o)
    Lisaxx

  • http://lisibo.blogspot.com/2008/06/animation-for-education-goes-ning.html Lisa

    Couldn’t agree more, José! Great post :o)
    Lisaxx

  • Guest

    Thanks every one for your comments. I knew that Spanish was the most popular MFL in the States but did not realise there was such a shortage of teachers. In contrast, here in the UK, MFL are no longer a compulsory subject at the end of secondary education, which has led to a dramatic drop in take up, as MFL are perceived as more difficult by students and there is a lack of social awareness about the importance of speaking other languages.

    Who knows? Perhaps we’ll have a situation soon in which there are not enough MFL teachers in the USA and too many in the UK. Have Maryland or New York thought about recruiting in the UK?

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    Thanks every one for your comments. I knew that Spanish was the most popular MFL in the States but did not realise there was such a shortage of teachers. In contrast, here in the UK, MFL are no longer a compulsory subject at the end of secondary education, which has led to a dramatic drop in take up, as MFL are perceived as more difficult by students and there is a lack of social awareness about the importance of speaking other languages.

    Who knows? Perhaps we’ll have a situation soon in which there are not enough MFL teachers in the USA and too many in the UK. Have Maryland or New York thought about recruiting in the UK?

  • http://mmeperkins.typepad.com/ Marie-France

    A great post José!! As a French native speaker and teacher of French and German, I agree that no languages should be under-valued and I am myself planning to learn your wonderful language as I felt so useles while visiting my daughter who is spending six month at Las Palmas university. The waiters could certainly communicate in French, English and German!! Shame on me! Like you, I feel that we need to celebrate Languages and not stab each other in the back. I have been planning to offer Spanish in my school but it would mean making a German teacher redundant which I could not do.

  • http://mmeperkins.typepad.com Marie-France

    A great post José!! As a French native speaker and teacher of French and German, I agree that no languages should be under-valued and I am myself planning to learn your wonderful language as I felt so useles while visiting my daughter who is spending six month at Las Palmas university. The waiters could certainly communicate in French, English and German!! Shame on me! Like you, I feel that we need to celebrate Languages and not stab each other in the back. I have been planning to offer Spanish in my school but it would mean making a German teacher redundant which I could not do.

  • Guest

    Thank you Marie-France. This is the sentiment that I tried to convey in the post: the fact that MFL teachers are in it together and must stick together and not descend into playground arguments my language is better than yours

    I am acutely aware than sometimes the popularity of Spanish is causing some teachers to feel threatened (particularly German teachers in my experience, of which I am one!) but I have to object when they, in defence of their language, resort to prejudice and stereo-typification.

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    Thank you Marie-France. This is the sentiment that I tried to convey in the post: the fact that MFL teachers are in it together and must stick together and not descend into playground arguments my language is better than yours

    I am acutely aware than sometimes the popularity of Spanish is causing some teachers to feel threatened (particularly German teachers in my experience, of which I am one!) but I have to object when they, in defence of their language, resort to prejudice and stereo-typification.

  • Barbara

    I agree wholeheartedly. I studied French, then Latin, then German and finally Spanish at school but Spanish will always be my first love, If you can learn one language well, then learning subsequent languages will always be easier. Spanish is a good language to learn, it wonderfully regular and although I have often argued about this with native Spanish speakers, it is an easy language to learn (but maybe takes a tad more practice to master) and a perfect basis for learning more languages.
    Back in my school days I did A level Spanish from scratch in 2 years in the sixth form, I would hate to think I was doing either German or French or gawd forbid Engilsh in the same timescale.

  • Barbara

    I agree wholeheartedly. I studied French, then Latin, then German and finally Spanish at school but Spanish will always be my first love, If you can learn one language well, then learning subsequent languages will always be easier. Spanish is a good language to learn, it wonderfully regular and although I have often argued about this with native Spanish speakers, it is an easy language to learn (but maybe takes a tad more practice to master) and a perfect basis for learning more languages.
    Back in my school days I did A level Spanish from scratch in 2 years in the sixth form, I would hate to think I was doing either German or French or gawd forbid Engilsh in the same timescale.

  • Guest

    Just a quick addition after Spain won the European Football Championship (soccer), followed a week later by Rafael Nadal’s great victory against Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

    It seems that Spain is turning the corner in more ways than one. Read this wonderful article from The Independent.

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    Just a quick addition after Spain won the European Football Championship (soccer), followed a week later by Rafael Nadal’s great victory against Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

    It seems that Spain is turning the corner in more ways than one. Read this wonderful article from The Independent.

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