What is the world role of Spanish?

English is now universally accepted as the language of trade, while French holds on to its position as the idiom of diplomacy. The Spanish-speaking nations seem reluctant to challenge the status quo, despite its growing presence, particularly in the United States

Naiara Galarraga Gortázar
The team of interpreters at the European Parliament have to deal with the demands of 23 languages on a daily basis.
The team of interpreters at the European Parliament have to deal with the demands of 23 languages on a daily basis. P. Naj-Oleari

Sato Sinichi was sent to the Andalusian provincial capital of Granada by the Japanese Foreign Ministry after passing his diplomatic corps exams in 1998. He spent a year studying Spanish full time, a language that was assigned to him after he insisted that he be given the opportunity to learn Castilian: "another influential language." He already spoke English. A year later he was transferred to Madrid to combine his language studies with a post-graduate qualification. Sato, who is now the Japanese Embassy's political attaché, says in perfect Spanish that he was not alone for those two years: "There were seven colleagues from my year."

Use of the Spanish language is spreading steadily throughout the world. According to the Cervantes Institute, the state-funded global network of arts and language centers, native Spanish speakers now outnumber English speakers by 410 million to 375 million, although nobody is questioning the fact that English is now the world's most widely spoken language. But where Spanish should have the edge is in the world of diplomacy, at least based on the numbers of people who speak it. Instead, French continues to be the language of diplomatic affairs.

Native Spanish speakers outnumber Engish speakers by 410 to 375 million

French is the native language for some 74 million people, and is spoken by around 220 million people in total. It still enjoys priority over Spanish in multilateral and European institutions. But academics, diplomats, and politicians from the Spanish-speaking world agree that the language's widespread use around the world should be better reflected at international events.

Does Spanish meet the criteria to join English and French as global languages? Can it do so under the present circumstances? Could it even replace French one day? Many experts say it could, but that a combination of tradition, the strength of the Francophone lobby, and the refusal or inability of the Spanish-speaking nations to work together on a sustained campaign to promote their language internationally mean that French will likely continue to hold its own.

Its presence in international organizations is clearly insufficient"

Tradition is a powerful force, and French is the traditional language of diplomacy - a status that the French have fought hard to maintain. One only has to look at the choices made by Japanese diplomat Sato's colleagues. While seven of them opted for submersion in Spanish, he says that "eight or nine future diplomats" chose French. As he points out, he was only sent to Spain by the ministry after he convinced his superiors of the "importance of the language."

David Fernández Vítores, who holds a doctorate in Spanish and teaches Translation and Interpretation at Madrid's Complutense University, says that one of the first things the founders of the European Union established was which languages would be recognized and used for formal communication between member states.

Babel diplomacy

- Some 410 million people speak Spanish as their native language, while 375 million people have English as their mother tongue. But English's dominance seems unassailable. Some 74 million people speak French as their first language.

- There are 23 official languages in the European Union. Spanish occupies the fourth or fifth place in the institution.

- The United Nations has just six official languages: Arabic, Mandarin, French, Spanish, English, and Russian; but only English and French are used for work purposes.

- Only the languages of the permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France, were set to be officially used, but thanks to the contribution of the Latin American nations and the Philippines at the conference to establish the United Nations, Spanish was included.

- The Treaty of Versailles, which signaled the end of World War I, constitutes the English language's first appearance as an institutional lingua franca. The US President Woodrow Wilson insisted that the agreement be published in English and French. This was considered normal because the US and UK representatives attending the preparatory meetings did not speak French, but their French counterparts did speak English.

Spanish is the fourth-most widely spoken out of the EU's 23 official languages, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, along with Arabic, Mandarin, French, English, and Russian: all documents and speeches are translated into those languages; although only English and French are working languages. The former is the most widely spoken at the New York headquarters, and where the use of Spanish is spreading, thanks in large part to the growing Hispanic population of the United States; while French is the lingua franca at the organization's Geneva, Switzerland offices.

The location of many of the EU's most important branches also explains the dominance of French: Brussels is the home of the EU's headquarters, while Strasbourg is the second home of the European Parliament, while Luxembourg houses the European Court of Justice. France has also been active in defending its language as the EU has admitted new members, particularly from Eastern Europe, and offered free classes to the representatives of new member states.

Francisco Moreno Fernández, the Cervantes Institute's academic director, is in no doubt that Spanish is under-represented globally. "The presence of Spanish in international organizations is clearly insufficient, and does not correspond to its international weight, nor to the level of Spanish spoken by those attending international events," he says.

"Spanish is ready to be used as the Romance lingua franca in the diplomatic and international arena," he says, suggesting a modest start by making Spanish the official language of Uefa, international soccer's governing body. Spanish soccer is universally admired and watched on television around the planet, he argues: "Given the importance of Spanish soccer in Europe and the widespread use of the language among international players, it is surprising to say the least that the official languages of Uefa are French, English, and German, but not Spanish. It would be nothing less than reasonable that the Champions League's hymn included at least one sentence in Spanish."

Moreno Fernández's advice is to win small battles first, rather than launching a major offensive in pursuit of challenging French and English head on.

Fernández Vítores, the co-director of a study commissioned by the Telefónica Foundation entitled El español en las relaciones internacionales (Spanish in international relations), says he is pessimistic about the likelihood of extending the use of the language in international and official organizations. "The only way to gain better representation in international forums is by gaining political weight," he says, pointing out that Spain's economic situation makes it hard for the country to project itself internationally. He believes that French and German are over-represented within the European Union - in part due to their role as founding members, as well as their political importance. Fernández Vítores says that changing this imbalance will be difficult, given that any modification to the language rules of the EU requires unanimity.

It is surprising that Uefa's languages are still French, English and German"

He too believes that strengthening the presence of Spanish as an international language is best achieved by soft power by projecting the language through the arts and sciences, rather than "raising the flag of language." That said, the predominance of English seems impossible to challenge. Take Wikipedia: the English-language version is more accurate and more useful because it includes the input of many more millions of users, regardless of whether English is their first language or not, than any other version.

"English is no longer limited simply to the English; it is clearly an international language," he says. The majority of international meetings and events use English as their lingua franca.

English is spoken by 1.5 billion people around the world, a quarter of the global population, and is without doubt the lingua franca of diplomacy and economics. But even The Economist admits that Spanish deserves to be used more, particularly in the United Nations, arguing in an April 2 article: "The UN should reward Spanish-speakers' increased economic and social clout - and their outsized commitments to the international system - with a bigger seat at the language table."

Santiago de Mora-Figueroa, the Spanish Foreign Ministry's ambassador for cultural diplomacy, confirms that there is no specific plan to strengthen the presence of Spanish internationally. A call to Spain's permanent representative to the United Nations in New York further confirms that the aim is to avoid a direct conflict with French, and to keep a relatively low profile. "We have no intention of organizing a promotion campaign; the idea is to use the six official languages equally, that the six should be those used, because that approach, in the long term, will benefit us." The attitude of the Spanish authorities is not to upset the apple cart, and to leave the status quo as it is. A spokeswoman for the Spanish mission to the UN insists that "Spanish will spread naturally, while French is on the retreat." She also argues that "taking on French or any other language is only to the advantage of English," adding that while there are no explicit instructions, the 20 or so civil servants working at the mission always use Spanish if there are interpreters. "Speaking Spanish is a privilege. We shouldn't forget that there are 193 members of the UN, and only six official languages," says a veteran interpreter, who points out that Spanish was first used in the UN in 1945 owing to the presence of Latin American nations and the Philippines; Spain was not admitted until 1955.

The role of interpreters is essential, says Fernández Vítores (a Greek and English interpreter himself): "Meetings are attended by experts in their field, not by those who speak the most languages." Around 20 of the 100 or so interpreters at the UN in New York belong to the Spanish department that was formerly run by Ingeborg Möller-Rizo, who is of Colombian and German parentage. "I have found myself in the paradoxical situation of interpreting into Spanish for a delegate whose mother tongue is Spanish but who was speaking in a different language," she says.

Out work meetings with the Chinese Foreign Ministry are in Spanish"

In the opinion of veteran diplomat De Mora-Figueroa, one of the more notable changes over recent years is the way that Spanish is perceived. It is no longer seen as "a language of grace and color," but one that is able to hold its own in the international arena. Spain's cultural diplomacy ambassador, who was only appointed last summer, says that the days when "foreign ambassadors to Madrid did not speak Spanish" are gone. Surprisingly enough, a Spanish-speaking ambassador can work just about anywhere in the world. Take Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's ambassador to China:

"Most of the time our work meetings with the Chinese Foreign Ministry are in Spanish. The Chinese diplomatic service has many Spanish speakers," he explains by email. He adds that as the current assistant minister assigned to Latin American affairs does not speak Spanish, "meetings with him are in English, and when formal occasions so dictate, Spanish will be used via a Chinese translator. "China has excellent translators, all of them career diplomats."

Guajardo says that it is often best to switch to English: "My experience is that everybody in this profession speaks English better than we do our counterparts' own languages; I have rarely had problems speaking to a non-Spanish speaker in English."

Fernández Vítores says that at many international events where tough negotiating is taking place, a language is chosen that is nobody's mother tongue, putting everybody on the same level, and requiring rapid and accurate simultaneous translation. The academic is not alone in admiring and envying the determination of the French in defending the continued use of their language. "They have a very efficient strategy at the institutional level with very little real power. Spanish has not been able to do this, despite its huge potential for growth due to the young age of most of its speakers," he says.

Spanish will spread naturally while French is on the retreat"

Moreno Fernández of the Cervantes Institute admits that "there are some things to be envied about French. France has been implementing a serious and efficient cultural policy for decades."

The UN interpreter says that the French and the French-speaking nations of Africa are always on the lookout. They will always register a formal protest if any document is not translated into French. They defend their language day and night through the ad hoc institution that has become known as the Francophone nations. This linguistic community, which brings together 56 nations and includes 200 million French speakers, "is not limited to simply speaking a common language, but also shares the humanist traditions transmitted by the French language," according to www.francophonie.org.

The head of the Cervantes Institute, which teaches Spanish to around a quarter of a million people around the world, admits that "Spain has joined the race late but that it has an enormous advantage, which is the desire that a Hispanic cultural policy not be dictated solely from Spain, but that it should be the result of a consensus that balances the interests of all the Spanish-speaking nations."

At a time when Spain faces unprecedented economic difficulties, perhaps it will fall to Latin America to take up the struggle for the moment in promoting Spanish as a truly global language.

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