Spanish is the language of the new century. There are 480 million speakers, of which 418 are in the Americas. So, if your business is keeping a distance from Spanish, prepare to say “adiós” to an entire continent of opportunities. Or… be quick on your feet, become a game-changer and train your sales team in Spanish.
Why is Latin America so important for businesses?
For multinational businesses, Latin America is a land of opportunity. With 411 million inhabitants, Spanish-speaking Latin America is a massive market to bypass. But, of course, there’s more. Almost every market in Latin America is an emerging one, which means their economy is not yet solidified: these are countries that are actively seeking investors, open to develop their R&D and with a booming service sector.
At the very top of the list of Latin American economies we find Chile and Argentina, both considered developed countries by the International Monetary Fund (since 2016 and 2017, respectively). But there’s also the big giant - Mexico - one of the world’s biggest emerging markets and already the world’s 11th biggest economy by total GDP. What’s more, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru are all expected to have an incremental GDP higher than Italy’s within the next decade.
Why businesses can profit more in Latin America?
If we go deeper into the statistics, it’s also easy to understand which businesses can profit more from this Latin American boom. A quick look into Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Chile’s top imports at World’s Top Exports reveals that some products are highly sought after in the region - and there’s an obvious need for chemical products and machinery, including electronics, vehicles and computers.
All these countries list the following products in their top 10 of imports: electrical machinery (including computers), mineral fuels (including oil), vehicles, plastics, optical and medical supplies, iron and steel. Pharmaceuticals also make the top 10 in all of them, with the exception of Mexico. With the exception of Chile, all import organic chemicals. In fact, it’s surprising how similar their needs are. After all, these nations have a considerable geographical distance, have enjoyed different political systems and made their own trade deals.
Why is Spanish so important to negotiate good deals?
But the puzzling question is: why is Spanish so important to reach key players in these markets, if nobody spoke a word of Mandarin when China became the major power? As a general rule, although knowledge of the local language is preferred, business worldwide is conducted in English. Why won’t this rule hold up in Latin America? Why must you invest in lengthy Spanish training to succeed?
The answer goes back to an ancient Latin proverb (Latin, it’s worth remembering, is the origin of Spanish): “when in Rome, do as Romans do.” We can try to extrapolate this to modern-day Latin America, which would make Spanish mandatory for anyone venturing into the region. For one, Spanish is essential to understand the local culture, the way people interact with one another and how deals are sealed. Then there’s national pride, an active resistance to giving up one’s own language in favor of global linguistic imperialism. The way English is taught in schools also plays a role, but that varies too much from country to country.
Overall, Spanish-speaking countries are not known for their levels of English fluency. Even Spain, which is well-integrated in the European Union and a high-income economy, has one of the EU’s lowest English fluency rates. Across the ocean, English proficiency in Latin America remains below world average.
Only three countries - Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica - narrowly reach ‘moderate’ level. Yet Argentina’s 56,51% is merely 11 points above El Salvador’s 45,70%, which is already considered ‘very low’. Of course, there are exceptions. You’ll probably meet lots of accomplished businesspeople who hail from Latin America and speak English flawlessly. But, as a precaution, don’t count on it. Without speaking Spanish, it’s most likely you’ll get lost in translation.