“You’d be perfect for this position, but do you speak Spanish.”
I heard the question again and again after graduating with my masters degree and began my job hunt. Time and time again, the positions that looked the most interesting, or offered the biggest opportunities for growth, required the one skill my resume lacked: Spanish. Thus, I made the decision to head to Panama and learn the language in order to advance my career.
Looking to get ahead in the workplace? Here are the 5 reasons why you should consider to aprender Español!
#1 Spanish isn’t a “foreign” language anymore
The U.S. is now the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world, and you’ve probably run into at least one Spanish speaker today regardless of where you live. In fact, there are more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than Spain, and demographics show that is not going to change in the near future. Rather, the US Census Office estimates that Latinos–which includes Afro-Latinos–will become 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050.
Due to growing demographic changes that also shape the economy, the “Speak English, this is America” mentality that once discouraged bilingualism is quickly become unrealistic. At every level of the pay scale, Spanish gives Americans a decided edge. Now, even call centers and receptionist jobs seek out bilingual applicants to meet the growing needs of immigrant communities. Big corporations are also realizing the importance of reaching the $1.5 trillion in purchasing power represented by Spanish speakers in the U.S. and seek to employ people who can bridge that gap.
#2 Language skills make you competitive in a globalized economy
The globalized economy necessitates bilingualism- and not just any bilingualism- but the languages of countries with growing economies. French may have been sexy when the euro was still strong, but the euro has been on a steady decline and its taking most European economies down with it. While English gets you in the door, it can’t guarantee you a seat at the table. One business leader was quoted saying: “English is fine if you want to buy things, but it’s not the right language to use for people who want to sell things.”
While most of the world was experiencing the aftershocks of the economic crisis, Latin America received a record $174 billion of foreign investment in 2012. PepsiCo plans to invest $5 billion investment in Mexico. Google now has offices in Peru, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. Uber also has teams in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Panama, and many other cities in Latin America. This is not a matter of American jobs being sent abroad, it’s the reality of a globalized economy where the opportunities exist elsewhere, not just here in the States. Thus, African Americans need to go where the jobs are and speak the language that’s selling what the people want to buy.
#3 African Americans need an edge at home and abroad
The well-documented biases against African Americans, even those with degrees, has already caused a significant gap between Black and white unemployment rates in the US. However, the fact that African Americans are less likely to speak a foreign language or study abroad in an already competitive job market also sends their applications to the bottom of the pile. Research found that Black college students take fewer foreign language classes and major/minor in foreign languages less frequently than their white counterparts. Thus, even as more and more jobs in the U.S. and abroad require Spanish proficiency, fewer Black Americans are able to meet that requirement. In order to remain competitive, this is something that will have to actively change.
#4 Strengthen your social and communication skills
I’ve sat in many meetings where interpreters were necessary to bridge language gaps for my colleagues only to realize how much culture and context literally gets lost in translation. To understand a culture and its people, you need to speak the language. Studies have shown that bilingualism makes you more empathetic and able to understand the social cues that reveal what people really mean. For example, in English, it’s sufficient to simply insert the word “want” or “would like” into a sentence to express your desire for something, or to try to influence the actions of another person. In Spanish, however, there exist an entirely separate tense to express wishes, doubts, and desires. Thus, simply translating a sentence that uses this particular tense from Spanish into English as “I want…” or “I would like…” would miss the underlying desire that the speaker aims to convey to the listener and ensure that your response wouldn’t be received well. Simply put, “being bilingual makes you smarter.”
#5 You don’t have to go very far to immerse yourself
Immersion is inevitably necessary gain fluency. With this in mind, I recently packed my bags and moved abroad to Panama with the single-minded goal of learning Spanish. Often overlooked, Panama is less that 3 hours from Miami and has one of the best language schools in Latin America, Habla Ya Spanish Schools. Even after a year of Spanish classes in D.C., I was entirely unprepared for being in a Spanish speaking country. Forced to speak the language, I learned more in my first month at Habla Ya than I did in the entire previous year taking classes in the U.S.
Panama also has breathtaking diversity that is highly underrated. You can go snorkeling through crystal blue waters that reflect the sun one day, hike up emerald green mountains to discover hidden waterfalls the next, and then party your way through clubs overlooking the modern skyline of the bustling city. Panama’s seamless blend of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, and Spanish culture can be felt in everything from the rhythm of the reggaeton pulsating in the streets to the food and celebrations. If one must learn Spanish to be competitive in a globalized economy, why not do it in a place that will welcome you and that you may never want to leave?
France François is a writer and world with a masters degree in International Development. Read about her travels and adventures redefining what it means to be black and abroad on her blog or follow her on Twitter: @frenchieglobal