Why Spanish Is On Its Way to Becoming One of India’s Favoured Foreign Languages

Margot Cohen
Grist Media

He was 14 -- and a little confused -- that day as he pored over a stack of Hindi magazines. He knew he wasn’t particularly good at math or science, and would never survive India’s dual bondage of medicine-or-engineering. But he didn’t want to stick around to grow rice and wheat on 8 bighas in Yarpur village, as his father did. There had to be an alternative.

One magazine offered him a clue: a stirring Hindi translation of a poem about the Spanish civil war, written by Pablo Neruda. The poetry inspired a vague sort of pragmatism. He learned that 500 million people on the planet speak Spanish. Couldn’t they lead him out of the hinterlands, somehow?

Sure enough, Ranjeet Kumar made it out. First, he was accepted into Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Spanish department, and then found himself recruited by a flurry of big companies such as Thomson Reuters and IBM (the latter offered a month-long assignment in Spain). Today, 33-year-old Kumar runs his own Institute of Spanish Studies in Bangalore, and cites all sorts of interesting facts. How the Chileans are sourcing gherkin pickles in Karnataka. How the Spaniards are keen on granite in Tamil Nadu. And how many jobs could be waiting for ambitious young Indians, if they buckle down to learn Spanish.

It’s still an unusual path, though no longer quite so lonely. Breaking out of many years of solitude (more than Gabriel García Márquez ever imagined), Spanish is basking in a new Indian buzz. Fueled by commerce, tourism, and a dash of Bollywood exposure, El Español is finally gaining some traction on a path crowded with French and German speakers. Consider this: within the worldwide network run by the Spanish government-funded Instituto Cervantes, the New Delhi branch vaulted over Moscow last year to win the number one spot, accepting 4,381 students in 2014.

Elsewhere, private centers like Instituto Hispania and Hispanic Horizons have witnessed bullish enrollment. India-tailored textbooks toss in pictures of Saina Nehwal with Shakira. The Noida campus of Amity University boasts more than 3,000 students of Spanish, with bulging courses averaging 60 students per classroom. In June, four dozen students will tackle Spanish at Bangalore’s prestigious Indian Institute of Management. As bilateral trade with Latin America hovers at $41 billion, placements in countries like Mexico and Argentina are growing more attractive.

“There is tremendous demand, and many more initiatives to meet that demand,” says Surbhi Sharma, the Bangalore-based Honorary Consul of Spain and the director of the Indo-Spanish Chamber of Technology, a private consultancy. “We get requests every week: they want to learn, or they want their kids to learn.” As improbable as it sounds, Spanish is emerging as a new ticket to get ahead in India. Aside from Spain and Latin America, its allure comes from its pivotal role in US business and culture.

Some find the language more accessible than German or Mandarin–both of which generally require three or four years of solid slogging before attaining use in a work context. In contrast, some employers are looking for a B-1 Intermediate Certificate in Spanish, which can often be earned within 18 months. Manish Singhal, head of the Americas and Europe Division of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, studied French in his youth. “I believe that Spanish is easier,” says the FICCI official. “Today, if I were to advise young people, I would advise them to take Spanish. The application of Spanish is much beyond German or French.”

Such advice could certainly raise a few hackles in India, where the governments of Germany and France have pumped vast sums of money into showcasing both language and culture. Their efforts have persisted since the 1950s (although

Alliance Française actually set up shop in Pondicherry back in 1889), resulting in a marvelous stream of films, music, and artistic collaboration. Study-abroad opportunities have also flourished. Alliance Françaisenow counts 14 branches all over India, while the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan counts 11 study centers. Compare that to Instituto Cervantes, which launched a sole, standalone branch in New Delhi in 2009. No scholarships are forthcoming from Spain, due to an ongoing budget crunch.

Spanish students at RDT, Anantapur with their teachers. Photo courtesy RDT.

German did fall victim recently in a spat with Human Resource Development Minister SmritiIrani, who insisted that Sanskrit replace Deutsch in the prestigious network of Kendriya Vidyalaya schools. Yet French seems to have spread unabated. In 2014 alone, more than 2,50,000 students from the school- to university-level were studying French in India, including 35,800 at the Alliance Française. (Alliance’s Delhi branch alone enrolled 6,000 students – about 25 percent more than Cervantes). The newest outlier is Portuguese, with Accenture reportedly waving job offers at LangÉcole.

During all those years that Germany and France were lavishing attention on India, Spain embraced Latin America. Outsourcing to India was considered politically incorrect. And in a country of whiskey die-hards, the quixotic Spanish preferred to devote their energy to touting wine.

But now some Indian job applicants are discovering a silver lining to that cloud of official neglect. A relatively rare skill demands a higher salary – even if that skill remains rough around the edges. Most companies that hire Spanish speakers, particularly in Business Process Outsourcing, provide extra training in-house, which can sometimes suffice in the case of repetitive work.

It remains unclear exactly how many jobs are out there. A quick check on Naukri.com by plugging in “Spanish” yields 191 job listings within the most recent 30-day period. A similar check on “French” results in 493 job listings. (Officials at Naukri.com and Monster India did not reply to requests for comment on the foreign language sweepstakes.) But it is also true that many companies don’t bother with Internet listings, preferring to recruit directly from universities (JNU, Delhi University, and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi; Doon University in Dehradun; Bangalore University and the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad) and other private language institutes. Like rags to riches, jobs run the gamut from the garment trade to handling documents in divorce disputes.

“Are they hiring in large numbers? I don’t think so. But are those people more highly paid? Yes,” says Harpreet Singh Grover, CEO of CoCubes.com, a firm that specializes in human resources.

Still, Grover and some of his counterparts are far more concerned with finding ways to improve mass levels of business-ready English, rather than focus on a slender talent like Spanish. “A new skill can help, but is that a solution to India’s employability crisis? I don’t think so,” says Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease Services, a staffing company with eight regional offices. “The non-English BPO has not been a very large part of the Indian BPO story,” Sabharwal cautions.

Any Spanish-language call center in India would face stiff competition from places like Costa Rica and the Philippines. But with Indian companies like Flatworld Solutions setting up centers in multiple countries, they claim to be finding ways to cut costs. And since India also produces a wide range of skilled workers in software, accountancy, animation, and subtitling, among other talents, some entrepreneurs are betting that more clients will migrate here.

Here’s a wacky scenario: one IT company recently sent a bunch of Indian employees to Mexico. Instead of enlisting language tutors in Mexico, they opted for Skype lessons with teachers based in Bangalore.

Meanwhile, some investors are looking for a faster flow of email. Four months ago, Glen Reccani, the managing director of Acciona Energy India, decided it was time to train his ten Indian employees in Spanish. “We were trying to make do with English. Now, as we grow, we have to interact with colleagues at various levels,” Reccani explains. “The senior executives know English, but as you go down the hierarchy in Spain, some people may not know English.”

In Bhopal, Alok Arora has big plans. In January 2015, the 27-year old UK-trained engineer and his development team launched a free Android app called LingosMio. Arora engaged native speakers as freelance voiceover artists, and focused on core vocabulary and verb conjugation. By doing so, he believes his creation to be superior to DuoLingo–the free language platform whose founders claim an 80-million strong subscriber list. So far, about 3,700 people have chosen to study Spanish through the scantily publicized LingosMio, including 775 Indians and people from various other countries, including Indonesia, Jamaica, Lebanon and Russia.(Spanish is proving the most popular language, although the app also offers Hindi, English and Mandarin.)

It’s not all about getting a job, Arora insists. Having made brief trips to Spain, Argentina and Peru, and spending more time chatting with new overseas friends online, he is high on the prospects for interpersonal connection and enriched travel experiences. “If you talk to people in their own language, they are much more open,” says Arora. (Indeed, one Spanish teacher from Nicaragua, now working in Bangalore, met her Indian husband chatting in Spanish online.)

Others have different reasons for learning Spanish. One of Arora’s Spanish classmates in Bhopal was prompted to attend after catching sight of the pristine beaches and flamenco dancers in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. That 2011 film alone was responsible for quadrupling the number of Spanish language textbooks imported from Spain, according to the country’s trade officer in Mumbai.

Some Spanish proponents are downright gushy. Listen to Raj Kumar Joshi, assistant professor at the Amity School of Foreign Languages: “The language of the soul, which even God understands, is Spanish,” he declares.

But in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, it’s the practical side of Spanish that counts the most. Since 2012, the Rural Development Trust (RDT) and the Vicente Ferrer Foundation have run a professional school (just one among RDT’s wide-ranging projects that include agricultural development and women’s empowerment) that aims to help rural youth with college degrees move on to find decent jobs. Aside from offering foreign language classes, the course also includes some extra training in computers and interpersonal skills to build confidence.

Primarily funded by donors in Spain, RDT has recruited native volunteers as teachers. These are no ordinary backpackers, but highly trained specialists like 31-year old Margarita Planelles from Seville, who completed a master’s degree in applied linguistics and a Phd in philosophy. She says she feels a special responsibility to help students raise their standard of living, after visiting homes without running water or refrigerators.

“For them, getting a job in Bangalore would mean a new life,” says Planelles. “I have to do my best because it’s their only chance to speak Spanish.” Luckily, she describes her students as “hyper-extra-mega motivated.”

Her class includes 25-year-old Sreenivasulu Challa who comes from Gorantla village. His two elder brothers are bus drivers, and left to his own devices, Challa could only parlay his B.Com in Computer Science into a boring Rs 6,500 monthly job as a cashier at a local Spencer’s. “I don’t like supermarkets. I like multinational companies,” he says. After graduating from the 10-month RDT program, he aims to earn Rs 30,000 to 40,000 a month in a corporate setting. From two previous batches, most of the program’s graduates have gotten jobs, recruited as translators for such companies as Tata Consultancy Services, HCL, Accenture, and Monsanto. In fact, RDT started the school after activists realized that RDT’s own translators, paid Rs 7,000 monthly, were drifting away to better gigs in Bangalore and Hyderabad.

In class, Planelles speaks in rapid-fire Spanish, admonishing her wards to pay attention and participate. Hardly any English crosses her lips, even though her students did not speak a word of Spanish prior to October 2014. As native Telugu speakers, some say that a Spanish accent comes easily to them. They practice the phrase: “Estoy nervioso cuando tengo una entrevista de trabajo.”(I feel nervous when having a job interview.)

For those in India who wish to sink their teeth into Spanish, one caveat should be understood. They will have to do their homework alone. Unlike their peers who choose French or German -- and who can rely on countless Indian tuition-providers to come up with the answers – such pioneers will have to fend for themselves. As Neruda wrote, “being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple act of breathing.”

Margot Cohen is a writer from New York. Her interest in India follows previous reporting stints in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.