Is the rise of Spanglish inevitable for Spain?

Jun 20, 2016, 9:51 AM EDT
(Source: Anthony Lopez/flickr)
(Source: Anthony Lopez/flickr)
The Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE) launched a snazzy campaign last month against the "invasion" of English words into Spanish. Words such as "cool," "marketing," and "eco-friendly" are becoming more common in Spain, to the horror of the RAE, which deliberately said it is not a "startup" but rather the 300-year old purity guardian of the country's only mother tongue. What particularly incenses the RAE is the susceptibility of many Spaniards to fall for products because they have English names and are thus viewed as more desirable -- even if consumers have no idea what those words mean.
 
To prove their point, the RAE released two satirical commercials in late May. One, with a voiceover in Spanish, was for a perfume with the English name Swine. Only at the end does the narrator reveal that swine means cerdo (pig); the closing caption says in Spanish that it sounds very good, but smells very bad. The other, with a similar setup, was for a pair of designer "Sunset Styles" sunglasses, "with blind-effect." It then shows that you can't see anything out of them.
 
The RAE may have a valid point but it is fighting a losing battle. It is one thing for consumers to be ignorant of English words and suffer the consequences of their assumed meanings accordingly. But English is increasingly looking like Spain's lifeline to the future, meaning a generation of Spaniards who understand at least minimal English may be inevitable.
 
During the long reign of fascist General Francisco Franco from WWII to 1975, foreign languages and regional languages within Spain (like Catalan) were banned from official use and in schools. This zero-foundation lingered on, despite the importance of English in business and diplomatic realms. Current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy himself has struggled with English, prompting media speculation that he missed out (and thus Spain lost influence) on much of the European discussions with Greece because English was the common language used.
 
As recently as 2011, Education First ranked Spain third-to-last among European countries when it came to English proficiency. Its "low proficiency" score of 49.01 was behind only Russia and Turkey. But after the financial crisis of 2008, with soaring unemployment (especially among youth), Spaniards increasingly looked to learning English as their ticket to a better future. Some in the literal sense, as many wanted to move abroad in search of better job opportunities, and those with higher English proficiency expressed a greater desire to do so. But even for those who chose to stay in Spain, knowing English was a major way leg up when applying for domestic jobs, particularly since many Spanish firms rely on exporting.
A Cambridge University Press study found that 70% of young Spaniards think that being able to speak English is more important than having a university degree.
 
Unsurprisingly, enrollment in English classes has increased every year since the financial crisis, along with the number of internationally-recognized English certification exams. By 2014, Spain had risen in the Education First rankings to a "moderate proficiency" score of 57.18, surpassing Italy and France. And the trend is accelerating, with English classes beginning at younger ages than ever before, even some before kindergarten. Prior to the country's inconclusive parliamentary elections last December, the ruling People's Party even floated a proposal to ban the dubbing of foreign films into Spanish, so as to improve the nation's English proficiency (although Spanish subtitles would still be allowed).
 
Undoubtedly, many English words have become part of everyday Spanish. But the reverse is also true. Some English words have been converted into Spanish slang, like "emilio" instead of email. And everyday English is constantly evolving with the latest buzzwords, and it unabashedly uses words from foreign languages -- think siesta and tapas. True, Spanglish can sound clunky, but in the age of texting and emojis, formal language purists are a dying breed. In all likelihood, the RAE's largely irrelevant campaign will be a footnote on Spain's path to becoming bilingual with English.