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How much is the language worth? Almost 10% of world GDP rests on Spanish


Highlights: Maintaining the economic status of Spanish in the era of technology and digitalization will not be easy in the face of the push of other languages. Having a consolidated international language is not available to everyone and offers benefits for those who use it. If Spanish wants to improve its positioning, one of the ways will have to be to become an international language for many speakers. This is done through the teaching of Spanish, giving it prestige and giving it more expansive behavior. Any language that has a more expansive and expansive behavior has a better future.

Maintaining the economic status of Spanish in the era of technology and digitalization will not be easy in the face of the push of other languages

Linguists say that languages differ not in what they should express, but in what they want to express, which is why there is no better language than another among the 7,000 that facilitate human communication. The Australian professor Robert W. M. Dixon tried to demonstrate this in the book Are Some Languages Better Than Others?, although there are still rumors about European languages being more sophisticated than others. Languages are not like people either: they do not have a year and a place of birth, although each country has its own legends about it. There's La Chanson de Roland for the French; the poem Beowulf for the Anglo-Saxons or the first sentences in Spanish that that monk of San Millán de la Cogolla left written a little more than a thousand years ago by dint of fighting with Latin.

Around languages, however, there are a few certainties. Having a consolidated international language is not available to everyone and offers benefits for those who use it. Measurable economic benefits. Professors and economists José Antonio Alonso, Juan Carlos Jiménez and José Luis García Delgado may be the three people who have contributed most to shedding light on this issue, with 14 monographs published between 2007 and 2016. His latest book, Los futuros del español (Alianza Editorial, promoted by the Nebrija del Español Observatory) that these days arrives in bookstores, makes a deep review of the position enjoyed today by the vehicle in which 596 million people communicate (2022), a figure that multiplies by six the base that was counted a century ago.

The Cervantes Institute collects in its memoirs that some 496 million inhabitants have Spanish as their mother tongue (6.3% of the world's population), which is added to the almost one hundred million who have it as a second language. This invisible raw material is a basic component for producing goods and services, for example in the publishing industry, education or the audiovisual sector. "If we consider the set of speakers, we are referring to just over 7% of the world's population, but this group has a purchasing power of around 10% of GDP," says García Delgado. Specifically, it would be 9.77%, about 13 trillion dollars in 2022, according to the authors' calculations. The per capita income of Spanish speakers would amount to $ 22,481, or 131%. "The difference between the weight in population and the economic weight is a consequence of the fact that the per capita income of Spanish speakers is higher than the world average," he continues.

In their projections, however, things will not continue to be so bright: in 2050 that weight will stand at 8.8% of GDP in the most modest estimate and 9.4% in the most generous. The Ñ, if no one remedies it, will regress in influence and in proportion of speakers with respect to the total world population.

It is true that the favorable demographics maintained over the last hundred years has yielded spectacular figures of new adopters of Spanish. In the United States, the Hispanic minority, one of the most affluent on the planet, is already close to 60 million people, and of these, 71% admit to having language skills. Hopefully, within three decades it could be the second country with the most speakers after Mexico. But things are starting to change.

The United Nations population projections draw the same profile for the countries of South America, Central America and the Caribbean: weak growth in the coming years that anticipates a deep decline from 2050 until the end of the century. The number of native speakers is expected to slowly progress to 526 million by that date. That the figures increase in the coming decades will not be enough: the share that this population will represent in the world total will fall three tenths when we reach the equator of the XXI century.

José Luis García Delgado explains that only Chinese has a projection as recessive as Spanish. "Since the growth of those who have it as their mother tongue is stabilizing, we must grow for other reasons, especially by bringing prestige to the language. That leads us to economic competitiveness and institutional quality, but in neither of these two vectors do we distinguish Spanish-speaking countries," he laments.

View of the International Book Fair of Guadalajara (Mexico), in its 2022 edition. ULISES RUIZ (AFP/ GETTY IMAGES)

José Antonio Alonso abounds in the idea that the future of Spanish cannot rest on demographic strength. "French, Arabic, English, Portuguese... Any of these languages has a more expansive behavior than Spanish. If Spanish wants to improve its positioning, one of the ways will have to be becoming an international second language for many speakers. This is done through language policies, teaching Spanish, and giving prestige to the language, something that has to do with its ability to be in the technological, scientific world, in networks, in economic interactions ...". In addition to the population of speakers, it is important to remember the number of States in which languages are official, co-official or majority. Chinese, for example, is an official or co-official language in five countries or administrations (China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Taiwan). English, on the other hand, appears in 50 countries on the map, while Spanish appears in more than 20. A graphic example explains why all of the above is important: when parents plan their children's education, they will presumably opt for English over any other language: in their minds they will calculate the communicative possibilities it offers and the differential profitability that the market assigns to that language. Similarly, unless they live in India, they may opt for French rather than Hindi: more Hindi speakers (380 versus around 300 million), but French opens the doors of 29 countries and Hindi is only official in India and Fiji.

A limited promotion

A common language also matters in international trade: exports "in Spanish" would account for about 6% of the total. It is no coincidence that the internationalization of Spanish companies began in Latin America, nor that now American capital sees in Spain its gateway to Europe.

But cultural creativity, scientific or economic vigor are not achieved overnight, nor are they the task of a single country. The most widespread criticism when addressing the issue of language is that there has been little coordinated international action in the past to encourage the use of Spanish nor has it been adopted as a strategic policy by the States that speak it.

One example is in education. The neighbouring Alliance Française was created in 1883; the British Council in 1934, and the German Goethe-Institut in 1951. The Cervantes Institute, on the other hand, arrived in May 1991. Each one has its own strategy to recruit students, but some start with a much more extensive network: there are 830 French alliances with a significant degree of self-financing in 137 countries. The Goethe, with far fewer German speakers, has 158 centers in 98 territories thanks to a budget of 370 million and the Cervantes, which has 89 units in 45 countries, receives a much lower endowment this year, of 163 million. In spite of everything, the Cervantes accredits that the number of Spanish students, inside and outside its classrooms, has doubled between 2010 and 2022, going from 11.2 million to 23.7.

The publishing industry is another large economic space, and only in Spain exceeds 2,700 million euros (2022). Brenda Navarro is one of Mexico's best young novelists. "The biggest advantage of writing in Spanish is that you can communicate with more than 500 million people. The worst disadvantage is that the publishing market continues to have enormous weaknesses, especially in Latin America. But this is not a problem of language, but of the logics of geopolitics, which remains Eurocentric and Anglophone," he reflects by email. "The burden of this has nothing to do with our capabilities, but with the monopoly that exists. Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States are always looking to see if we are too Latin American, too women, too rebellious. How are we going to compete on equal terms if there are entrepreneurs who think that unemployment must grow so that we understand that we were born to serve them? My hope is that languages go beyond market control."

Dispersed efforts

There are promising initiatives for Spanish to remain one of the main ways of communicating on the planet, although they may be excessively fragmented. The Spanish Secretary of State for Ibero-America has created the General Directorate of Spanish in the World. In Mexico, the writer and director of the Mexican Academy of Language, Gonzalo Celorio, highlights the work of the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language, made up of 23 corporations on four continents. But he regrets that the unity of purpose does not correspond to the possibilities of spreading the language in each of the countries where it is spoken. "To a large extent, because of the economic differences between them and the different support of their respective governments." In 1960, he recalls, the Multilateral Agreement of Bogotá was signed, which obliges each of the governments of the countries that host an academy to contribute to its financial support. "So there are academies that have ample resources from the State, such as the Spanish one, and others that live in precarious conditions. Some of them, such as the Nicaraguan Academy of Language, have even been stripped of their legal personality." The Mexican Academy of Language, which represents the largest number of Spanish speakers (one in four Spanish speakers is Mexican) has suffered significant funding cuts by the government in recent years. "With this panorama of inequality, it is difficult to have a common economic policy. The Spanish case is undoubtedly the most advantaged, since the language industries represent a high percentage of the GDP of its economy, and, on the other hand, it has legislation that has defined exemplarily -in my opinion- the relationship between Spanish and the co-official languages". Mexico, he says, "continues to suffer from the atavism of identifying the Spanish language with the Conquest, when the process of Castilianization occurred mainly in the independent republics, as an indispensable requirement for the national configuration." The status of Spanish, which is not recognized as an official language, has not yet been resolved in constitutional terms, which makes it impossible to consider the original languages as co-official languages.

No one dares, perhaps, with a multinational, pan-Hispanic strategy. At most there are those who aspire to order the resources of their own house. In spring 2022, the PERTE (strategic projects for economic recovery and transformation) was announced in Madrid, with 1,100 million in aid and subsidies. Carmen Noguero, general secretary of Cervantes, finds it very significant that (for the first time) it is at the same level, for example, as the plan for the electric car, the agri-food sector, or that of microelectronics and semiconductors: "It is, without a doubt, good news that there is a strategic project of the administration in relation to language. It is an opportunity to take advantage of the potential of Spanish and the co-official languages as a factor of economic growth." Artificial intelligence, science, learning and cultural industries are the axes of the initiative. Cristina Gallach, commissioner of the plan, describes that it comes to be an umbrella to connect the actions of several ministries. For example, the actions of the Ministry of Economy (which works on digitalization, artificial intelligence and telecommunications, for example with support to the video game sector, or the RTVPlay platform) are grouped; those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which finances part of Cervantes' actions); Education, with its network of regulated education actions that is taught in official centers; Culture (which includes activities of the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía or the National Library); Universities (such as the support of chairs to develop artificial intelligence systems or centers of excellence dedicated to language processing) and the Ministry of Science, for the dissemination of science in Spanish. "By uniting all this in a single area, the PERTE was generated," explains Gallach. "The commissioner has the function of harmonizing what each ministry has, making visible the economic value of the language ... because it expands in markets through the teaching of Spanish, in India, Eastern Europe or even the United Kingdom has a lot of value, but it also has value to unite this demand". According to the last balance of the commissioner, last July, 400 million have been committed in direct aid of the 443 budgeted.

Enthusiasm gives way to doubts. What will happen next? Will promotion die when European money dries up? Why, if it is really so important, does the value of language seem to be discovered now? The answer is the size of the threat. Digitalization offers another cartography of power, and the linguistic oligopoly of the street changes its profile on the network. Returning to the publication of Los futuros del español, and using data from Internet World Stats and Funredes, some 395 million speakers have access to the internet, and about 273 are Facebook users. After English and Chinese, it is the third most used language on the network, and the second on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and X, as well as on the best-known digital platforms (YouTube, Netflix or Wikipedia). But it is a fact that must be completed by spinning fine: users act more as consumers than as producers of content. "The digitization of books, the creation of scientific articles in Spanish, the penetration of platforms such as Wikipedia, digital literacy, electronic administration ...".

The purchasing power of these users, who will ultimately define the use of tools (for example, the need to create new banking applications in Spanish), represents 12.5% of a hypothetical global GDP of the Internet (with a base of 143% due to multilingualism). The penetration rate of mobile phones in homes makes this possible. As the digital divide is reduced in other countries, demographic and economic dynamism will determine that digital purchasing capacity, and there the Spanish can return to the starting square: it needs to conquer virtual spaces.

"We realize, at the government level, that this is a dynamic process, that it must be maintained. At the European level there are initiatives such as European Language Equality that were languishing, and that are now in the foreground to position all languages in digital format", reflects Gallach. From the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation, Marcos Pinta, deputy secretary general, speaks of something similar including Portuguese. "Latin America has lived through a difficult decade, low growth, less trade, less relations with other countries... The challenge is in digitalization, innovation, artificial intelligence, in working the strength of the Spanish and Portuguese languages".

Artificial intelligence

It is very unlikely that English will cease to be a global and hegemonic language in business, but artificial intelligence should also know how to address those almost 600 million Spanish speakers. The director of Digital Processes and Services of the National Library (BNE), Gloria Expósito, explains that the institution has large projects underway that are generating massive data. "We digitize collections of books, maps, prints, images... Another source is the websites: twice a year we carry out massive collections of the .es domain to have a photograph of all the heritage it houses". They have completed the first phase of the MarIA project, in which they work with the National Supercomputing Center of Barcelona. It is the first massive artificial intelligence system to understand and write in Spanish. The Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) also has its own plan, the Spanish Language and Artificial Intelligence (LEIA) project, which has the support of the rest of the language academies.

And behind the tangle of wires and chips, Brenda Navarro's desire: "Spanish is not going to grow not only because of the number of people who speak it, but because of how rich, diverse and wonderful it is."


Migrating is one of the most effective ways to export a language. With people move their traditions, their culture. For the emigrate, the decision to pack is easier (and costs less in economic terms) if he knows that thanks to the language will increase his chances of getting a better paid job. The Spanish language has used migratory flows for years to widen its international dominance: in the nineteenth century from Spain to Latin America and since 1980 in the opposite direction. In the United States, the Cervantes Institute quantifies, 42 million residents have Spanish as their mother tongue and another 15 million say they know how to defend themselves. The problem, says economist José Luis García Delgado, is that the United States "has been the great graveyard of languages," which disappear with the advance of generations and cultural assimilation in the country of destination. And it could remain so if the current abundant migratory flow ceases. If North America continues to maintain vigorous levels of Spanish speakers, it is because traffic on the border of Mexico has not stopped growing and because communications with the countries of origin (through telephone or email) are easier and more affordable than in the past. But not so much because the country offers great concessions to bilingualism in the administrative sphere, for example.
Returning to Europe, the group of Spanish-speaking migrants is estimated to exceed two million. But its integration is different due to three factors: the fact that Spanish is an official language of the EU, European respect for multilingualism and the increasingly frequent preferences for choosing it as a second language at school. But if it is about conquering speakers, Spanish should look to Africa. Teaching the language in the continent that will grow the most in the coming decades would help improve conditions for migrants and expand economic and cultural ties.

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Source: elparis

All business articles on 2023-09-17

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