Does Spanish Matter?

Forbes
May. 26 2011
By GIOVANNI RODRIGUEZ

Is the English language the world’s only virtual superpower?  A look at a useful model for evaluating global influence.

In a series of lectures, monographs, and books, businessman and cultural historian James C. Bennett laid out an argument for the continuing influence of laws, norms and values that can loosely be attributed to the English-speaking world, a real-and-virtual entity he called “The Anglosphere.”  For Bennett, the argument was timely.  By 2004, the year that Bennett’s first book appeared in print, businessmen, scholars and students throughout the world had begun to accept the inevitability of globalization, a topic that only a few years earlier had much of the world divided (at least on the level of opinion).  By 2004, Americans were beginning to take interest in books that addressed globalization not as an “if” or a “when” but a “how” (a common realization:  “we all have to adapt, so please tell me what to do”).  In 2005, the best-selling book on the topic was “The World is Flat,” which purported to tell the reading world what in fact they can do.  Many had come to believe that not only was the world flat – connected and inter-connected like never before – but also navigable.  One of the dominant forces behind globalization – communications technology – is now seen not as an insidious, culture-negating force (though a contingent of people continue to feel this way) but potentially as a liberating force.  And though many people were only vaguely aware of it at the time, communication technology itself was undergoing profound change.  The middle of the first decade of the 21st century was the date of birth of what we now call the social-media movement.

As I said, Bennett’s “world of influence” model was timely in the-world-is-flat era.   But it is also useful today — it may in fact have given us a way to interpret relative influence of any culture on the new multicultural social Web.  But let’s start with the subject of Bennett’s work.  As he described, the Anglosphere was a persistent force that created a common world culture via land, language, and law (the common law, which originated in Anglo-Saxon culture).   There’s nothing like it in recent history, says Bennett, and its continuing influence is unlikely to wane anytime soon.   And despite the right-leaning nature of Bennett’s thesis – though not nearly as well known as Friedman’s writing, the Anglosphere did stir a fair amount of debate – the sphere model for evaluating cultural influence strikes a chord with anyone following the way cultures are developed today on the Web.   The world of the Web – particularly the world of social media – is largely virtual.

For digital Latino watchers – an audience that is rapidly growing because of the size of the market numbers – there’s an opportunity to take Bennett’s sphere model and use it to evaluate the world of Latino digital influence.

Three Spheres

To fully understand the potential eight of the Latinosphere, it might be helpful to use the visual model that proponents of the Anglosphere have used.  In the Wikipedia entry for the Anglosphere, the following image appears:

There are a couple things worth noting here.  First, the map (in dark blue) denotes countries where English is the first language spoken by its people.  Second, while the overall landshare might not appear to be very large, the wide geographic distribution is meaningful.   “The sun never sets on the English empire” is no longer true.  But you can say quite truthfully that the sun never sets on the English language.

English is still the number-one language on the Internet.  But it will soon be eclipsed by number two:  Chinese.  What can we say about the “Sinosphere”?  Let’s take a look at the Wikipedia map for the Chinese language.

This map simply denotes the countries where Chinese is the official spoken language, or as the article on the Sinosphere in Wikipedia explains, “are currently inhabited with a majority Chinese population or were historically under heavy Chinese cultural influence.”  [5/28 update:  Thanks to one of the commentors below for forcing a close look at the map].  There are many Chinese speakers in countries where Chinese is not the official language, though there are perhaps even more who speak English.  But the more remarkable thing about this map – and perhaps the reason why the map is rendered in a globe rather than as a flat expanse – is that Chinese does not have the geographic distribution that English has.

What’s the number-three language on the Internet?  Spanish.  Let’s see what we can learn by looking at the Wikipedia map.

Once again, this picture denotes (in dark blue) countries where the language is the official tongue of its people.  And yes, there are countries where Spanish is the number two language, most interestingly in the US where recent Census numbers show that both Latinos and Spanish are on the rise.  I’ll look at the trends behind those numbers – the burgeoning US Latino population and the rise of Spanish in the US – in later blog posts.  In the meantime, there’s something else that’s worth noting, and it’s visible on this map.  Like English, and unlike Chinese, the Spanish language enjoys a wide geographic distribution.

And this is just a picture of the Latinosphere today. There are several things that will be worth watching in the future:

–Spanish may be number three language on the Web.  But it could soon become number two. It’s a little known – or perhaps just little appreciated – fact.  While Spanish is the number-three language “spoken” on the Internet, there are more Spanish speakers today than any other group except Chinese speakers. If the trend of Internet adoption continues – and if Latinos continue to outpace other groups in population growth – Spanish could someday eclipse English on the Internet.

–Spanish is not the only language in the Latinosphere. It’s a fact that’s easy to forget, especially if you subscribe to the Anglosphere’s “language first” world view.  But the Latinosphere is different.  Self-identifying Latinos speak Spanish, English, or both.  And that’s just in the US.  The culture-within-a-culture is a defining characteristic of the US Latinosphere, and it’s important to grasp this to appreciate its potential influence.

–Political and geographic distribution are not the only modalities of power.  But in the Latinosphere, politics matter. James Bennett, the originator of the Anglosphere concept, took pains to describe the attributes that made the English-speaking world such a potent and persistent force in history.  But whereas the power of the Anglosphere has been expressed in laws and customs, the Latinosphere might express itself in ways that may not necessarily lead to political transformation.

One of the most interesting sectors for contemporary Latino marketing is politics.  Early signs show that both Republicans and Democrats will launch aggressive campaigns to court the Latino vote for the 2012 election.  It’s perhaps one of the reasons that a look at the Latinosphere is as timely today as a look at the Anglosphere was just a short while back.  Since 2000, every presidential campaign has upped the ante for innovation in digital and social media, and 2012 promises to raise the standard again.  And this time Latinos – the potential swing vote in battleground states like Texas, New Mexico, Florida and North Carolina — are seen as one of the top prizes.   Young Latinos, who are outpacing other groups in the adoption of mobile, social media and emergent technologies are not only expected to become prime targets of political targets but perhaps self-appointed leaders in niche campaigns, will likely emerge in stature.


--