Though English remains, for the moment, the primary language of international commerce and pop culture, there’s another language that’s shooting to the top of the popularity charts – and no, it’s not Mandarin.
Spanish is currently one of the most popular languages for students and professionals alike – and it’s only becoming more useful, especially in the United States.
A 2013 report by the British Council, titled "Languages for the Future", identified Spanish as the most important language for people in the UK to learn, above Arabic, French and Mandarin. There’s certainly plenty of room for improvement, as the report states that just 4 percent of adults in the UK say they speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation.
There are more than 400 million native Spanish speakers in the world, making it the second most widely spoken language, with official language status in 21 different countries. An additional estimated 60 million people speak Spanish as a second language, bringing the total number of speakers to well over 500 million.
More than 20 million students study Spanish as a second language. Many of them are in the United States, where Spanish is by far the most popular language studied.
But the interest in studying Spanish isn’t only growing among university students. Research conducted for the Telefónica Foundation found that bilateral trade increases by almost 300 percent when Spanish is the common language of commerce, suggesting that it is in the best interest of countries and companies looking to expand into the fast-growing Latin American markets to ensure they have Spanish-speaking employees and representatives.
Spanish is so important in the US that it has become part of the conversation for the 2016 presidential candidates. Democrat Hillary Clinton has produced videos and content for her campaign website in Spanish, while Republicans Marco Rubio, who is bilingual, and Jeb Bush, who is fluent in Spanish, have made media appearances speaking in Spanish and even used some Spanish in speeches.
Though the US is the biggest source of Spanish learners – which makes sense, considering its proximity to Latin America as well as the demographics of the country, where Hispanic and Latinos account for 17 percent of the population – it’s not the only country with its eyes and textbooks swiveling toward Latin America.
According to a Chinese government official, demand for Spanish language instruction in China has “increased 30-fold” over the last 15 years. Lu Jingshen, the government’s National Coordinator for Spanish, told the audience at the Foro Internacional del Español that there are many job opportunities for Spanish speakers, particularly teachers, in China.
“The increased demand is dizzying, besides the Chinese government has decided to extend its policy of liberalising the economy and Spanish is able to obtain greater benefit from it”, he said.
With several official state visits and multiple trade deals announced in recent years, China has been making inroads into Latin America, a policy move that may help explain why Spanish has suddenly become so popular.
Some experts simply see the growing global interest in Spanish as an indicator of major geopolitical and economic shifts.
"The axis of communication and, therefore, culture has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific where most of the world’s population is concentrated", said Jesús Juan Ciro Martín Sanz, president of Plataforma del Español, a network of Spanish-speaking companies, speaking at the same forum.
"The 21st century is the era of the Pacific, that’s why the Spanish language should have a more prominent presence in the region."