As Spain’s La Liga soccer season kicks into high gear, Lionel Messi is not only busy driving in goals for his squad F.C. Barcelona, he’s also driving students across the United Kingdom to study Spanish.
Dubbed the ‘Messi Effect’ by the vice president of one of the U.K.’s largest examination boards, the popularity of Latin American culture and players from across the region – along with Spain – has helped Spanish creep up on French as the second most popular foreign language in U.K. schools. Figures showed the number of pupils going for their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE, or the U.K.’s version of the GED) in Spanish increased by almost 2,000 to a record high of more than 93,000 this summer – rocketing up by 50 percent in a decade and almost three times the total seen in the early 90s.
"Young people are also more exposed now to Spanish culture, from music, to food, to high profile Spanish-speaking personalities, such as footballer Lionel Messi,” Lesley Davies, vice president of Pearson, which owns the Edexcel exam board, told the Telegraph. "It's no surprise that it's become the second modern foreign language of choice in the classroom."
Spanish overtook German a few years ago and GCSE entries in the subject may exceed those for French within a few years as statistics show Spanish is the only language to see an increase in entries this year. On the flip side, the number of students taking French dropped by 3 percent, from 177,288 to 168,042, while German entries dropped by just over 1 percent, from 62,932 to 59,891.
“It is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. I went to factories in California where people had to have Spanish as a fluent second language,” Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board. "I think more and more people are speaking Spanish. I think students recognize that it is a very important language to have."
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While students in the British Isles are catching on to Spanish thanks to the “Messi Effect,” students in the United States don’t need a soccer star to help them choose Spanish as their language class of choice. While the U.S. is notorious for having terrible secondary language classes, the large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the country and its close connection with its southern neighbors has helped Spanish easily outpace other languages in classroom popularity. That is, when a second language is offered.
A 2009 survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that 88 percent of language programs in U.S. elementary schools taught Spanish, and 93 percent in secondary schools. French and German came in second and third respectively, with Latin and Mandarin Chinese rounding off the top five.
Despite language courses taught in some elementary schools, learning a second language has not taken priority in many American schools like in Europe. Across the pond, 90 percent of children begin learning English in elementary school and several countries mandate the teaching of two foreign languages in upper secondary school. In the U.S., less than one third of elementary schools offer a foreign language course and less than half of all middle and high school students are enrolled in such classes.
“Things cannot get worse. We are at the bottom of the barrel now” in terms of foreign language study in America’s schools, Nancy Rhodes of the Center for Applied Linguistics told the Pacific Standard Magazine.
So, at least for the time being, European students will continue to outperform American students in the classroom in the same way that their soccer counterparts do on the pitch.