Health, Lifestyle

The linguistic future of the next Latin American generation

The Shakespearian maxim “to be or not to be” has recently been transformed in Great Britain into “to learn or not to learn a foreign language”, with no space left for the “question”.


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Mario López-Goicoechea


The world has changed drastically over the last twenty years. Economic power has gradually slid from the West to the East. Whereas before the United States and Europe reigned supreme unchallenged, China and India, having grown into Leviathans, now put this position of hegemony into question. One consequence of this transition of power, although not intentional, has been the importance gained by foreign language learning.

For more than half a century English has been the lingua franca of excellence on the international level. The combination of the defeat of the Nazis at the hands of the Allied forces in the Second World War and the golden years of Hollywood during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s introduced a lexicon that invaded the screens (big and small) and created a security net that profoundly benefits both immigrants and travellers.

As a result, anywhere on the planet, no matter how desolate or overpopulated it may be, someone can be found who speaks English.

Nevertheless, here in the 21st century, being monolingual is a big disadvantage. For anyone who wants to have a good job with an adequate remuneration, it’s indispensable to know how to communicate in at least one other language. It’s here that the future Latin American generation in the United Kingdom has a big opportunity.

The descendants of Spanish speaking Latin Americans are in a good position. Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world; second, if one takes into account that it will displace English in the United States in some 15 or 20 years, and first, if one recognizes that Mandarin, the number one language, is mainly spoken in China.

However, how does one face up to the challenge of raising this future generation in a bilingual or multilingual fashion when the Anglo-Saxon culture is still so strong?

The first step is to look at the linguistic circumstances of those families where Spanish (or other languages) and English exist side by side in everyday, unexceptional situations. After all, there are more multilingual than monolingual people in the world.

The second step is to speak Spanish from before the birth of the children, or in other words, when they are in still in the mother’s womb.

Many Spanish speaking parents worry about what other people think when they start a conversation with their child in public.

The alternative they choose, to speak to their children in English so as not to make friends, acquaintances or strangers feel uncomfortable and to return to the mother language later at home or alone, can cause the little ones confusion in the short term and in the long term lead them to reject Spanish altogether.

Another factor to take into account is the importance of demonstrating with real life situations the positive impact that learning Spanish has, not only in gaining good marks in GCSE or A-level exams, but also in life in general. This can be done from a very young age by way of books, music and videos. In fact the arrival of You Tube and other online social interaction platforms has widened the horizons for teaching Spanish.

However, something that plays a decisive role in this process is making the future Latin American-Hispanic generation in the United Kingdom understand the importance of the language, not only as part of their family heritage, but also as a first step in the long journey towards understanding and assimilating another culture.

That being said, those born in Great Britain face a linguistic barrier as a result of the decision taken by the Labour Party in 2004 to eliminate the obligation to learn foreign languages above the age of 14.

The effect was immediate: there has been a 30% reduction in students that opt to take exams in German, French and of course, Spanish.

This is a good time to stimulate interest in Spanish speaking culture among the children of Latin American parents, as much in contemporary as traditional aspects. In the field of music, the popular Colombian singer, Shakira, releases albums in Spanish and English; in sport there are the triumphs of the Spanish football team at both the European and worldwide level along with the success of the Argentine Lionel Messi at Barcelona FC; and recently the British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, created a space in its monthly cooking supplement for recipes from various regions of Spain.

For this reason, the future of foreign language learning appears promising. It is now common to find primary schools in the United Kingdom that pay special attention to French and/or Spanish as part of the new MFL (Modern Foreign Languages) directive in the educational curriculum.

The result is a different way of looking at other languages and an understanding of how to take advantage of them. It’s worth highlighting that university graduates of language courses are in fourth position, behind doctors, architects and lawyers, in the best remunerated of the professional spheres.

This is the “El Dorado” that members of the third Latin American generation in Great Britain hold the key to and, unlike their British compatriots, they won’t have to torment themselves with the Shakespearean maxim, nor with that “question”. It will already have been answered when they were children, and probably in Spanish.

(Translated by Tim Huntington – tims.lucky17@googlemail.com)

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