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The Forward March of Spanish

Spring / Summer 2011 Features

The Forward March of Spanish

article12Latin America’s English-speaking elites are giving way to a newcentury middle class that fancies the language of Pizarro and Cortes

In Spanish-speaking Latin America, English is the language that one uses to talk to the elites, but Spanish is needed to hear the people. As the region develops economically, and as the middle class grows and consolidates its political relevance, Spanish will become increasingly important for those outside of Latin America who are interested in keeping up with political and social developments in the region in this new century. In other words, paying exclusive attention to what the elites have to say will not suffice, even if, paradoxically, many of the most relevant voices of the growing middle class will also, to some extent, communicate with the outside world in English – emulating what the national elites have done for decades.

Unlike the 20th century, where the elites dominated Latin American politics and economics – leading the overall evolution of Latin American societies – the 21st century will most likely see the region’s middle class become ever more relevant as national economies mature and democratic traditions solidify. True, the recent economic success of Latin America might not endure (as past experiences have shown). If that comes to pass, the middle class will not develop a stronger and more influential voice, Spanish will not acquire greater hemispheric and international relevance, and the Latin American English-speaking elites will have to do some explaining as to why they missed the opportunity to move Latin America beyond its extant ‘emerging economy’ condition.

Because of its colonial history and its persistent levels of inequality and social exclusion, Latin America has often been dominated by its elites – with the large majority of people being excluded from the political, social and economic realms. Historically, the elites have been well-connected to the world, and fully interested in social and political developments elsewhere. Globalized in their relations with, and interests in, other regions, these elites have also strongly held on to tradition domestically. These elites speak English and French to the world, and Spanish – although certainly not native or Aboriginal languages – within their own countries. They send their children to private schools, where they learn English and French. In the business arena, and even in the upper echelons of the increasingly technocratic public sector, English terms are regularly used – as in other parts of the world – and having academic credentials from American universities is normally seen as indicative of superior intellectual status, or at least of higher technical capacities.

As mentioned, when the elites have something to say, they communicate with the world in English – more than French, especially since the second half of the 20th century. Latin American presidents who do not speak English are normally seen by members of the elites as less worldly, and indeed less well suited to represent their countries in the world arena. Even for the masses, having foreign language skills is seen as a plus. (This is in contrast, for instance, with popular appraisal of foreign languages in political leaders in the US and Canada.) In 2005, when she was campaigning to become the first woman president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet – the candidate of the successful, moderate, centrist Concertacion coalition that had ruled Chile since 1990 – was under criticism for her lack of experience in public office. She was accused by the opposition of being unprepared, and of having lesser credentials than her two right-wing contenders – Harvard Sebastian Pinera, a successful businessman with a doctorate in economics (and now president of Chile), and Joaquin Lavin, the former mayor of Santiago. Though a physician specializing in pediatrics, Bachelet did not have a graduate degree from an American, Canadian or European university. To respond to her critics, her campaign put out a television advertisement showing Bachelet speaking in English, French and German to foreign correspondents. As she had learned French and English as a child, and after her years of exile in Germany during the Pinochet dictatorship, Bachelet used her knowledge of foreign languages as convincing evidence of her preparedness to be Chile’s president.

In the Latin America of 2011, the ability to communicate in English is commonly seen as a good proxy for being academically well-prepared, and technically able to be a leader in the region. As such, politicians or businesspeople who are not fluent in English find it difficult to combat the perception that they are not well suited for their positions. Evidently, there is diversity and variability among Latin American countries in the value attributed to speaking English in the business, social and political realms. Whereas in Mexico, Chile, most of Central America, and increasingly Colombia and Peru, speaking English is seen in a positive light, politicians are less inclined to have strong technical and language skills in Argentina, Venezuela or Bolivia. Yet, even in countries that have moved to become more confrontational with the US – to counter its traditionally strong influence in the region – English and a strong technical education still help. (Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa – a leader closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez than to the US – holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois.)

During his recent presidential trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, US President Obama confided a comment made by one of his daughters. She had asked why everyone with whom they had met in Chile spoke English, while no one in the presidential family spoke Spanish. The first daughter’s observation affirms the all-too-common reality – discussed above – in most of Latin America’s countries: English is widely spoken among the elites, but barely spoken in the rest of society.

Unlike many Asian and African countries that were colonized by English-speaking countries, Latin America’s historically strong relations with Spain helped to consolidate Spanish as the dominant language in most of the region early in the 17th century. By the time that Latin American nations became independent in the early 19th century, Spanish was already the dominant language. The call for independence was made in Spanish, and the first constitutions were all written in Spanish. The indigenous population – quite large in countries like Mexico, Peru or Bolivia – was not a part of the independence process. Indeed, in some countries like Argentina and Chile, the remaining indigenous population was exterminated after independence, when liberal elites seeking to modernize the nation – and to leave behind the colonial past – implemented pro-immigration policies to populate areas in which indigenous groups had historically resisted Spanish colonial rule.

The dominance of Spanish as the official language in most of Latin America – with the notable exception of Brazil – did not prevent the elites from being fluent in French and English, and it did not mean that the indigenous minorities abandoned their own native languages. For liberal elites, Spanish became the language that could bring together the nation. French and English were reserved for communication with the outside world, and indigenous languages were tolerated for the masses – although seldom learned by the members of the elite. Late in the 20th century, some countries began to adopt indigenous languages as official languages. For instance, Quechua was made official in Ecuador and Peru, and both Quechua and Aymara made official in Bolivia. Still, Spanish has remained the dominant social, economic and political language in all of those countries that have added a native language as an official tongue. When Evo Morales was inaugurated as the first indigenous president of Bolivia in late 2005, he started an improvised inauguration speech in Spanish, and then switched to his native Aymara – surprising most members of the diplomatic corps, and with them most members of the Bolivian elite, who could, of course, only speak Spanish. (Though a majority of Bolivians speak a language other than Spanish as their native tongue – with many speaking both Aymara and Quechua – the elites and the diplomatic corps were only fluent in one of the three official languages in the country: the language of Pizarro and Cortes.)

The higher up that people are in the ladder of society, and the more access that they have to opportunities for socio-economic promotion, the more likely it is that they speak Spanish as their native tongue – with English or French as a second language. Conversely, the lower that they are in the structure of society – and the more likely that they are to be among the poor and excluded – the more likely it is that Latin American people speak only Spanish or an indigenous language as their native tongue. In the 19th century, liberals sought to establish Spanish as the sole official language, and to teach it to everyone. Adopting Spanish as the national language symbolized, in the minds of the liberals, equality – though it also evidenced their preconceptions about the native cultures being backward, and about European scientific and rational thought being necessary to bring about development in the region. Today, in countries with a large indigenous population whose native language is not Spanish, the dream of equality rejects the notion of imposing one language over another. Instead, it proposes that equality can be achieved when all languages are put on the same level, and when society celebrates its multilingual reality.

Though the debate over Spanish being the language of former Spanish colonies in Latin America sheds light on the complex issues of the region’s global diversity – and on issues related to intense intra-country diversity in the region – there is no doubt that Spanish remains the dominant language among the large majority of people in Latin America. Mixed-blood Latin Americans – mestizos – speak primarily Spanish. There are wide variations of accents, vocabulary and even grammar among the different Spanish-speaking countries. Street Spanish and Spanish spoken in the urban ghettos vary significantly from Mexico to Argentina, from Colombia to Chile, and from Venezuela to Peru. A more standard Spanish can be found in foreign-language television series and films dubbed into Spanish (in the most accent-neutral form possible). Of course, the popularity of soap operas, films and television shows produced in Mexico has helped Mexican Spanish become the best known accent in the region; after all, Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world! Spaniard Spanish is also a well-recognized accent in the region, but Spain has its own domestic challenges in accommodating its multilingual reality into the narrative of the nation-state – all of which militates against the ‘old country’ emerging as an example of a Spanish-only-speaking state for Latin America. Recent globalization trends have facilitated access for Latin Americans to national television programmes, series and films – and Internet sites – from neighbouring countries. And while we are actively witnessing the consolidation of nationally distinctive accents and vernaculars in urban areas all over Latin America, there is a growing awareness in the region of the way in which Spanish is evolving in neighbouring countries. This dynamic naturally contributes to strengthening the language, even as the language loses uniformity and evolves more rapidly.

Latin America is home to the majority of the 400 million Spanish-speaking people of the world. Mexico, with a population of 111 million people – more than twice that of Spain (46 million, and, at that, not entirely Spanish-speaking) is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Indeed, Colombia (46 million) and Argentina (40 million) both have more native Spanish speakers than Spain. The US, with almost 50 million people of Hispanic descent, has more Spanish speakers than Venezuela (29 million), Peru (28 million) and, by implication, each of the other Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. As rapid economic development – led by painful reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, and aided in recent years by positive terms of trade for raw materials and commodities – has issued in an impressive growth of the middle class in most Latin American countries, those beyond the elites have begun to have more of a say in policy-making, and in political decisions more broadly. Public opinion is becoming increasingly relevant as democracy consolidates – just as this empowered middle class finds its own voice to defend its priorities and needs. As a consequence, Spanish is becoming more and more relevant in the political debates, in social discourses and – to be sure – in the economic arena. A growing number of political leaders, businesspeople and technocrats are coming from the middle class; these are people who did not have access to public education in which learning a foreign language was a ‘must.’ As they seek to increase their political clout, they are certainly acquiring foreign language skills (the growth of English as a Second Language institutes is an excellent indicator of rapid economic development in Latin America). However, they are less inclined to speak English – or perhaps less confident in their ability to do so well – than the elites who learned English in their early years.

As the English- and French-speaking elites lose power to the rising middle class, those outside of Latin America will inevitably have to pay more attention to the voices coming from the region – in Spanish, Portuguese and even native languages. Bref: If Latin America continues to develop and economic growth brings even more people into the middle class, Spanish and Portuguese will before long displace English and French as the languages spoken by those who carry peculiar weight in the political, business and social realms.

This trend is contingent, of course, on a big ‘if.’ Latin America has experienced periods of economic boom and bust in past decades. The rise of the middle class has been announced and celebrated before – particularly when there was high demand for raw materials (materias primas) in other regions of the world, with Latin America being eager to sell its rich non-renewable and renewable goods. However, when the terms of trade became negative, and demand for raw materials decreased, Latin American nations suffered profound economic crises; the ‘inevitable’ rise of the middle class turned out to be short-lived. This time around, a few countries – although certainly not all of them – seem to have learned from past mistakes. (To take but one simple example, countries like Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia have adopted counter-cyclical policies to constrain public spending in years of trade surpluses to save them in years when they experience trade deficits. This practice has allowed them to weather periods of economic downturns, as during the crisis of 2008.) Those countries should be able to survive the next downward period in the economic cycle. In those countries, the middle class will survive, and democracy will continue to consolidate. And the importance of Spanish will increase further still as the middle class continues to strengthen its growing leadership position.


Patricio Navia teaches Latin American politics at New York University and at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. He has a weekly column in La Tercera in Chile and the Buenos Aires Herald in Argentina.

(Illustration: Nate Williams)

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