On The Future of Language – And on Why Choosing Spanish is a Smart Bet

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On The Future of Language – And on Why Choosing Spanish is a Smart Bet

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For the last month or so, I've been embarked on my second attempt at learning German. This has given me a lot of time to think about languages and their future at a global scale. I hadn't written anything yet on the topic, but an article on the Washington Post with the title "The future of language" inspired me to write a few lines. Of course, the topic is extremely complex, but these are a few thoughts from the top of my head:

Arabic

Arabic has the great advantage of being spoken in a wide and contiguous geographical area going from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Its speakers are all over the world and, in general, have high birthrates. On the downside, it's spoken versions vary widely from country to country. As a second language it's relatively hard to learn and I'd argue that (in the broadest possible sense) its culture is relatively inaccessible for foreigners. In a geopolitical sense, it's hard to see an Arabic-speaking power that can, through its "soft power," help project the language (and its movies, music, culture) all over the world.

French

French suffers from a similar problem. The way it's spoken in countries from the DRC to Haiti to Canada can vary significantly. And, of course, most of the inhabitants of Francophone countries around the world (in North and Subsaharan Africa, etc) have different mother tongues and sometimes don't even speak French at all. Whatever prominence French is set to acquire in the future will be driven by African nations, but it's quite hard to see them creating a geopolitical 'bloc' with France, Belgium and so on.

Hindi

Hindi, Urdu and other Northern Indian languages have big hurdles as well. Hindi hasn't been able to impose itself as the lingua franca in India itself, so it's hard to see it becoming an important language at a global scale. And, of course, English is an official language in India and the de facto lingua franca of the country already. Every educated Indian speaks English, and that won't change very easily.

Chinese

Chinese languages can, and will definitely acquire a bigger relevance, given the sheer number of people in the "Chinese world" and their relatively low levels of English speakers (especially when compared to India). However, it's hard to see them getting anywhere near English. First, as far as I know Mandarin and Cantonese are very different. Second, 9 out of 10 speakers of Chinese languages are ethnically/culturally Chinese, and that is not a good thing for a language. Languages thrive on diversity, which enriches them, opens them up and simplifies them over the centuries. In the end, I think the future relevance of Chinese languages will depend on Beijing's policies and, especially, on the way they will choose to relate to the rest of the world. Issues like immigration, the treatment of foreigners and so on will be a massive challenge for the Chinese superpower.

Spanish

As for Spanish, I don't think it will "replace" English or anything near it, but its relevance will definitely grow in the coming decades. Why?

  1. Because, like Arabic, Spanish is spoken in a massive, geographically contiguous zone that goes from North America to the southern end of the world. That area, by the way, now goes all the way up to the US-Canada border.
  2. Almost all Spanish-speaking societies are as ethnically/culturally/religiously diverse as it can get, which makes the language (and its culture/music/films/literature) universally appealing and creates a process of constant evolution and simplification.
  3. Unlike with many other dynamic languages, that process is overseen and regulated by an institution whose only purpose is to take care of Spanish, its rules and its official use. And boy, they take it seriously. This institution, called the "Real Academia Española" (Royal Academy), has kept Spanish as a unified language throughout the world for a few centuries now. Thanks to it, any Spanish speaker can travel anywhere the language is spoken and will have virtually zero problems with communication (you can read more about the different "types of Spanish" here...
  4. Most Spanish-speaking countries share a sense of shared destiny for historical, geographical and cultural reasons. I would even go as far as saying that, in many ways, the feeling of being "Latin American" is stronger and much more real than that of being "European". (Just look at the Pope, see how many times he's referred to as the "Latin American" Pope.) Moreover, the fact that the Spanish Empire has been gone for so long, that it collapsed so helplessly, and that the importance of Spain itself is diminishing so fast (it might not even keep it together as a country!) all help diffuse the colonial resentments that are still an issue with French, for example (Algeria, Haiti, etc).
  5. Latin America has two major languages that are ridiculously similar (especially the Brazilian version of Portuguese) and together make up around 500 million speakers. It will be interesting to see what happens with them, but I think Latin American Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese are already in a process of convergence that will lead to the rise of a kind of Portuñol. The main resistance to this, if any, will come from LatAm itself, as there will be little either Spain or Portugal could do about it. We might not live to see, but Portuñol is bound to happen.
  6. And finally, the only superpower of the world is increasingly becoming another Spanish speaking country. For all the rise of China, Russia and India, the US will continue to be a major force in the world for at least another 100 years. And the prospect of a Eurasian unification will only make its need to integrate with the rest of the Western Hemisphere even more urgent. If this happens, we will have a whole continent (except the Canadians, Jamaicans, Haitians and so on), around 800 million people from every possible human background speaking even a basic version of Spanish or Portuñol.

Of course, all this things can change, and this is only one man's opinion, but this is how I'd see it going in the near future. If anyone has anything to add, please comment!

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