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Trips of the tongue: Spanish language tourism on the rise

The number of people heading to Spain and Latin America to study is growing

Students in a Spanish class at the Eureka school in Madrid. Ampliar foto
Students in a Spanish class at the Eureka school in Madrid.

For Ruth María Hoffmann, there are few greater pleasures in life than watching Cuéntame (Tell me), the Spanish television saga that charts the fortunes of a middle-class family from the 1960s onwards. The 52-year-old office worker watches the program in her native Germany, and says the series has both helped her learn Spanish and understand the country’s culture better. This week she’s in Madrid, a trip she makes at least twice a year to improve her pronunciation and grammar. She’s just one of 858,000 visitors who came to Spain to study last year, most of them to learn Spanish, according to the Cervantes Institute, the state-funded language and culture organization. Around 20 million people around the world speak Spanish as a second language, and a recent report by the Cervantes Institute shows the numbers are increasing.

The tourists who travel to Spanish-speaking countries to learn the language are perfect ambassadors of Spanish”

Mari Carmen Timor, president of Fedele

“Today I was able to say good morning to the concierge in my building and chat with him, and that makes me very happy,” she says during a break between classes. Hoffmann began studying Spanish 10 years ago, and now teaches the language to her co-workers in Germany, as well as acting as a liaison with her company’s partners in Latin America. “To be able to speak with my colleagues is exceptional, it totally changes the relationship,” she says fluently, albeit with a marked German accent.

“The tourists who travel to Spanish-speaking countries to learn the language are perfect ambassadors of Spanish,” says Mari Carmen Timor, president of Fedele, the body that represents Spain’s main language schools, which between them received around 90,000 students last year, an 8.5 percent rise on 2013. Spain is the preferred destination for people looking to study Spanish abroad, followed by Argentina with around 50,000 students, and Mexico, where some 35,000 head each year.

Timor says Spanish and Latin American culture has a strong international appeal, aside from demographic factors – it is now the second-most widely spoken language in the world. “When people come here and get to know our culture or make friends with the families where they stay, language students tend to spend much more money than other visitors,” she says. Marcelo García, president of the association of Argentinean language schools, which has been organizing an annual conference on language tourism for the last four years, agrees: “People start with the language, and then they get into the tango, ham, music, literature… These are people who get involved in the local community much more than other visitors.”

Marca España (Brand Spain), the body set up to promote Spain’s image internationally, estimates that visitors who come here to learn a language spend an average €2,000 during their stay, which amounts to around €2 billion a year.

People start with the language, then get into the tango, ham, music… They get involved more than other visitors”

Marcelo García, president of the association of Argentinean language schools

The profile of the average language student coming to Spain is somebody aged between 13 and 25, 70 percent of them women, staying for a minimum of a week, typically with a Spanish family. Most visitors to Spain come from France, Italy, and Germany. The majority of Brazilians and North Americans go to Latin America.

Salamanca, whose university is attended by around 6,500 foreign students each year, works hard to promote itself internationally through bodies such as the Mesa del Español, a public-private initiative that brings together language schools; City Hall; the chamber of commerce and other bodies. Visitors taking part in the Mesa del Español scheme are given a smart card that provides access to many public services, as well as having access to an office they can turn to in case of problems. In a city of around 150,000 people, there are 16 language schools accredited by the Cervantes Institute – Madrid, a city of three million, has 22. “Why do they come here? Because it is one of the safest cities in Spain, which is particularly important for minors, while the quality of the teaching here is of the highest standard, and we have a network of families who have been hosting visitors for many years,” says tourism head Julio López.

But while cities like Salamanca and Madrid have developed their own plans for attracting language students, there have been calls for a national strategy. Eduardo Sánchez, the Cervantes Institute’s director of analysis and strategy, agrees that more resources and coordination are required. “This is a matter of state, and I think that we need public policies. I don’t mean to say that the government is ignoring the matter, but it has always been considered a niche segment within our tourism industry.” Sánchez says the UK sees learning English as one of the main elements of its international image. “The other day I was talking to some Chinese colleagues who were telling me about how many people in their country want to learn Spanish. I am afraid that we won’t be able to find the resources to support this challenge,” he says.

“What is needed is a long-term plan. We cannot depend on whoever is in office or heading the tourism ministry,” says Timor.

Colombia and Uruguay are two examples of governments that have committed themselves to attracting more students of Spanish. The former launched its Spanish in Colombia program in 2013 under the auspices of the education and foreign ministries. Uruguay sees language tourism as a way of attracting visitors all year round, says Cristina Ramos, a teacher at International House Montevideo, one of the leading language schools in the Uruguayan capital.

Interest in learning Spanish is growing in Russia, China, and South Korea, while in the United States around 50 million people speak it as a second language. Whether or not Spain will be able to take advantage of this demand is another question. As Eduardo Sánchez of the Cervantes Institute says: “Can you imagine what the French would be doing if they had 50 million people in the United States who spoke their language?”