Hispanists: a step ahead

BAS Senior Editor Robin Wallis  

The Bulletin is an academic journal, but when it comes to setting out our stall to recruit potential Spanish students, we have to acknowledge one fundamental point that is not conventionally factored into the academic calculus: Spanish is sexy, both in the colloquial sense of exciting, fashionable and eye-catching, and maybe in other ways too. Read on and I’ll prove it. 

Word from the front line is that STEM subjects are competing for potential Spanish recruits more fiercely than before.  Thank goodness for STEM.  It gives us vaccines, and when we get old it eases our way out.  In the meantime, we feel the wonder as scientists reveal what makes up the universe and what makes up our bodies. 

STEM is brainy.  Covid-19 has proved that the Brits do science well.  The Age of Pandemia has been one long advert for STEM subjects.  Many students will go with that flow: let’s be grateful for their commitment to human welfare. 

By contrast, if you’re a decent linguist, you’re now a rarity.  You’ll get noticed.  Even sought after.   

Franco wasn’t a great poster-boy for Spanish. By signing up for my first Spanish class at a time when his regime was still garroting its opponents, I was registering an acquired taste. Pursuing Spanish may have seemed like backing a loser, but in due course, as a Hispanist, I evolved from being an outlier to finding myself centre-stage: tapped to translate poems by a famous author, to interpret for visiting dignitaries and at hospital bedsides, to escort beauteous Latins to functions, to convey the dispositions of diplomats and armed forces, to brief clued-up people on Catalan secession and to herd paralytic people back to their hotels after their noche de barbacoa.   

As a teacher, it wasn’t hard to spread the word about Spanish to new generations, especially after their first salsa or tango experience.  Taking dance instruction in Spanish is a fantastic way to forge those synaptic pathways that allow spontaneous understanding.  Being immersed in Spanish during your first hands-on dance with a member of the opposite sex is a formative association that will not put you off languages.  Frankly, the first chocolate con churros did the job for some students. 

Then there’s the freed imagination.  The syllabus allowed me to teach the haunting Crónica… (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) and the hilarious La tía Julia… (Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter) – two of the most irresistible novels ever written, whose young central characters, wracked by desire, were people my students could identify with.  You want an education? Read this stuff. 

They used to ask me to make the case for Spanish to Year 11s before they chose their Sixth Form subjects.  I kept it to about a minute: ‘You’ll understand me when I mention sunshine, swimming pools, salsa and sangría,’ I began. ‘You may think those are good enough reason in themselves to sign up for Spanish.  If I now mention people you may not have heard of, like Almodóvar, García Márquez or Joaquín Sabina, that might complicate matters.  For now, I’ll keep them a secret between me and the Upper Sixth.  But at the end of the course you’ll be telling me that they are as good a reason to do Spanish as all the sol y playa in Spain.  These aren’t just famous artists: they’re entertainers and confidants who will teach you stunning truths about life and love and men and women.  What they reveal about yourself and others will put a skip in your step and infuse your time on earth with a lightness of being.’ 

No need to mention Despacito or the latest Grammy stars: the students knew those better than I did.  I departed, leaving any questions to be fielded by the Sixth Form hispanists I’d invited along for that purpose.  We ended up with plenty of new recruits, and fully half of those who took A-level or Pre-U Spanish continued it at university. 

Then there are the employment opportunities.  Working the islands as a tour rep was a great holiday job, and years later I’ve gone back to Spain as a ‘cultural tour leader’.  Spanish and my associated travels got me into the Diplomatic Service, where, if you’re any good at languages, you get paid to learn new ones. 

Perhaps the greatest blessing of all in being a linguist is that it allows you to enter other people’s worlds.  In a place like Peru it’s particularly awe-inspiring to have a common language with indigenous people who preserve traditions from another age. The skills you learn from communicating with other cultures enrich your travel experience anywhere you go, even if you’re only using gestures, nods and chuckles.  

Of course, if you don’t choose to study a language, that’s okay. We need a range of expertise to keep the world turning, and you can always employ an interpreter.   

Let’s remember that scientists and engineers also want to free the imagination.  Technicians and medics with the broadest horizons have almost all been inspired by literature and film. They may just need a little extra help on the dance floor.   

Adapted with permission from an article originally published in UCS’s Interlingua magazine.