Spanish now second-most-spoken language on the social networks

But head of Instituto Cervantes draws attention to its increasingly “shabby” use

Jesús Ruiz Mantilla
A user of WhatsApp gets a message ready.
A user of WhatsApp gets a message ready.JULIÁN ROJAS

Almost 470 million people speak Spanish as their native language around the world, while another 21 million study it as a second language. What’s more it’s the third-most-widely spoken language on the internet and the second on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, according to the latest report by the Instituto Cervantes. But the state-funded body responsible for teaching Spanish around the world also warns of what it calls the poor state of spoken and written Spanish.

Almost eight percent of internet users speak to each other in Spanish, a ratio that reflects its spectacular growth over the last two decades

“I have said this many times and I repeat my words: the state of Spanish is shabby,” says Victor García de la Concha, the head of the Instituto Cervantes and a member of Spain’s Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE), expressing the concerns of academics and teachers. “The reasons are to do with people not reading enough, or reading poor-quality material, along with not having been taught the language properly,” García de la Concha explains.

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During his time as head of the RAE, García de la Concha was responsible for creating what he called pan-Hispanic global alliances. This was a time of expansion. During the final phase of his tenure, in the last four years, resources have been scarce, but he has made a virtue out of necessity and encouraged stronger ties with Latin America.

His experience has made him optimistic about the figures, but pessimistic toward what he sees as the qualitative decline of the language. Neither does he blame the digital age directly: “The experts warn us that there is no clear relationship between the increasingly present signs and  impoverishment, but we still lack perspective on this,” says García de la Concha. In his opinion, the answers are largely in the hands of the politicians, as well as the independence of the Instituto Cervantes. “It would be desirable for this institution to have a more independent management model, like that of the Prado Museum or the National Library. We don’t want to be subject to political comings and goings.”

He speaks from experience. The position he now occupies has been suffering a kind of funneling effect within the framework of a political war between the Culture and Foreign ministries, a war that dates back to the previous Socialist Party-run administration (2004 to 2011), and that continues today under the government of Mariano Rajoy.

A global language, adapted to the worldwide web

  • There are 559 million Spanish speakers around the world, ranging from native speakers to those with just a basic grasp of the language.
  • Some 6.7 percent of the 7.2 billion inhabitants of the planet are already Spanish speaking, compared to Russian or French and German speakers, who make up just 2.2 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively.
  • It is the world's second-most-widely spoken language, taking into account native speakers, those with limited knowledge, and students.
  • As a mother tongue, it is the second-most-widely spoken language, after Mandarin Chinese.
  • Demography helps, given that the population of Latin American countries continues to grow, while the proportion of English and Chinese speakers is falling.
  • Spanish is the third-most used language on the internet, after English and Chinese.
  • Some 7.9 percent of internet users communicate in Spanish.
  • It is the second-most-used language on the social networks.
  • Use of Spanish has grown by 1,100 percent between 2000 and 2013.
  • By 2030, Spanish speakers will make up 7.5 percent of the world's population.
  • Within three or four generations, a 10th of the world will be able to speak and communicate in Spanish.

Both ministries have launched battles for control of the Instituto Cervantes, and with it power over policy of something as strategic as Spanish, since former Culture Minister César Antonio Molina tried to bring it under his ministry’s ambit. Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo and José Maria Lassalle, the secretary of state for culture, have not let up during the last four years.

A growing number of voices are arguing that giving the Cervantes greater autonomy would help resolve the internecine warfare. The current power vacuum has illustrated the problem.

There are other signs of optimism in the figures, as was outlined last week by the authors of the Instituto Cervantes report, David Fernández Vítores of Madrid’s Complutense University, and José Montero Reguera, of the University of Vigo. The group of potential users who are native speakers and with more limited use today reaches some 559 million people around the world. In 2030, 7.5 percent of the world population will be Spanish speaking. At present, the figure is 6.7 percent, much higher than Russian speakers (2.2 percent) and just 1.1 percent for French and German.

Spanish has also benefited from being widely spoken in the United States and Great Britain.

Almost eight percent of internet users speak to each other in Spanish, a ratio that reflects the spectacular growth of use of the language over the last two decades.

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