Friday, May 23, 2014

Generations and Foreign Languages, Part 1: Spanish - The (Once) Top Language for Americans to Learn

This is the first in a three-part series discussing the past, present, and predicted future popularity of various foreign languages among Americans.

If you're an American Xer or Millennial, chances are during your schooling you were told that among the choices for a foreign language to learn that Spanish was your best bet with the predicted rise of the Hispanic population. Sure enough, we're now to the point that you now see many bilingual items in English and Spanish, bilingual service workers have been in greater demand, and in some regions Hispanics are now the largest minority group. But does that mean that the Spanish language will continue to be in even greater demand in the coming years and decades? Not necessarily, for several reasons.

The first is that, in part thanks to us moving into a Fourth Turning with the economic collapse circa 2008, the number of new and existing illegal aliens (read: mainly Hispanics) declined at the time of the collapse and has remained fairly steady since. This of course means the linear predictions made a decade or two ago that we would continue to have more and more new illegals settle in our country have, for the most part, not come true (since the peak around 2007 or so). Fourth Turnings in America's past have represented a leveling-off or decline in immigration, and it appears that this time around will be no different.

Now you may be thinking about the existing Hispanics living here and their higher-than-average birthrate contributing to the future demand of more hispanophones. Although the parents may not be fluent in English (which is where that language demand mainly comes from), their children who go through the American school system do get exposed to English (and in fact typically make that their primary language). Therefore we have a cohort most concentrated among Xers where most of the demand for bilinguals is found; since this group has largely been fixed and will grow older over the coming turnings we can see there will probably be minimal new demand for Spanish-speakers among non-Hispanic Americans (of course in certain services, like health care that will increasingly cater to those aging Latinos, there may still be a rise in demand). Although the number of people of Hispanic descent may continue to (and will probably) rise, the number of people that speak Spanish but not English probably won't.

Finally since learning Spanish has been so encouraged over the past generation or two we are becoming more saturated with suitable bilinguals - meaning that the supply/demand equilibrium has become more balanced. In fact, since the children of the immigrants I mentioned in the above paragraph will naturally know both languages, that may further tilt the balance towards there being an excess of available hispanophones available.

I'm not saying that Spanish would ever be a poor choice to learn as a foreign language for Americans; after all it's still, and most likely will remain, the most spoken language in the Western Hemisphere. My point is that for various (and often overlooked by linear thinkers) reasons the hype that it is *the* language you *should* learn has largely gone out the window with the Third Turning. If you live or plan to live in the "Latino Belt" roughly consisting of the Southwestern States and Florida (or other locality where Spanish is used virtually as much or more than English), or plan on being in an occupation where you'll frequently be interacting with the (aging) non-anglophone Hispanics, it may still be true that your best bet is to learn Spanish; otherwise if another language interests you more or has the potential to be more useful for you I say go with it instead.

In the next installment I'll be discussing Spanish's biggest "competitor" in foreign language choice - the sister Romance Language of French.

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