Spanish Language in Africa. Its Economic Role South of the Sahara

Josué Diego Ferreyra
In recent years, the world has undergone a series of demographic and social changes related to economic development in all countries. Globalization has made the exchange of goods and services easier and has also enabled the dissemination of knowledge: data and information analysis is much more accessible every day, and the world is living an era in which interaction with people from anywhere is possible by remote means, as far away as Africa, for example. This universe full of culture, landscapes, and different ethnic groups has also been nourished by social phenomena such as migration, cultural exchanges, and, intrinsically, the incorporation of foreign languages among the African population.

Spanish is the second biggest language in the world, in number of native speakers . In addition, more than 24 million people is currently studying Spanish as a second language [see infographic in page 90]. Although it is mainly spoken in Latin and neighboring countries, the reality is that Spanish has surpassed its expected limits. In 2022, UNAM-South Africa conducted a census among private and public schools in sub-Saharan Africa that offer Spanish as part of their foreign language electives or that have Spanish in their curriculum. This census has made it possible to determine which institutions teach Spanish as a second language on the continent. The scope of this census provides an overview of the purchasing power of the Spanish-speaking population and its impact in a globalized world, i.e., its relationship with current economic powers.

The data analyzed
63 schools offering Spanish courses in sub-Saharan Africa were registered. Public and private schools were considered, in their basic (elementary and middle-high school), high school, and university levels. Among the private schools, language academies and certified private tutoring teachers were also considered [see Graphic 1]. All registered schools offer Spanish as a foreign language or as a second language when the mother language is a native language.

Gráfica 1. Escuelas que ofrecen cursos de español en África Subsahariana 
Of the 48 countries studied, 44% have at least one Spanish language teaching center. South Africa is the country with the largest number of centers (19). The overall average is 1.3 schools per country.

Despite being less than half of the countries, 44% is a considerable proportion given that foreign languages are competing for learners in Africa, especially English, French, Italian, Chinese, German, and Arabic.

Comparing the ten countries with the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in sub-Saharan Africa with those that have more Spanish language courses (Table 1), the results tie five countries in the top 10: Angola, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, and Mauritius. Interpreting the language education systems of these countries, one notices that people there have more opportunities to invest in their education, mainly in private schools, which involve a monthly or semi-annual fee.

Table 1. Sub-Saharan Africa: per capita GDP and Spanish teaching
Countries with the highest
GDP per capita
Countries with more Spanish
language schools
29 837  South Africa 19
Mauritius 22 240 Ecuatorial Guinea 4
Ecuatorial Guinea 18 127
Cameroon 4
Botswana 17 603  Angola 4
Gabón 15 598 Madagascar 3
South Africa 14 420 Malawi 3
Eswatini 9815  Senegal 3
Namibia 9805 Cape Verde 3
Cape Verde 7028  Mauritius 2
6581 Nigeria 2
GDP data: World Bank, 2021.
In both public and private schools, learning Spanish as a foreign language is an option among the languages offered, except for Equatorial Guinea in whose education system the teaching of Spanish is mandatory (Nistal, 2011). In some cases, there is a greater presence of Spanish in private schools, which are able to manage it as part of their normal curriculum. On the other hand, some public schools encourage the learning of a foreign language as a requirement for employment or to complete the processes to get a degree or a professional license.

The proportion of schools is 65% private and 35% public. In short, the higher a person’s income, the more opportunities they will have to participate in extracurricular or self-improvement activities, such as the study of foreign languages.

Table 2 compares the ten countries with the highest GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa to those offering more Spanish courses.

Table 2. GDP and Spanish teaching in Sub-Saharan Africa
Countries with the highest
GDP (EUR millions)
Countries with more Spanish schools
Nigeria  373 639 South Africa 19
South Africa 353 948 Ecuatorial Guinea 4
Kenya 93 381 Cameroon 4
Ethiopia 83 876 Angola 4
Ghana 66 882 Madagascar 3
Angola 63 521 Malawi 3
Tanzania 59 406  Senegal 3
Ivory Coast 58 988 Cape Verde 3
Central Africa Republic 45 623 Mauritius 2
Cameroon 38 578 Nigeria 2
GDP data: World Bank, 2021.

The results tie in four countries: Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria, and South Africa, whose economic stability is linked to educational quality and opportunities for growth and development. Besides investing in their educational systems, whether public or private, these countries may also invest in services indirectly related to the same purpose, for example, communications, roads, transportation, housing, or libraries, to name a few.

According to projections made by the World Bank in 2021 regarding the recession that sub-Saharan Africa has experimented after the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, countries will be able to recover and stabilize by 2023-2024 and will increase their GDP between 2.5 and 5.5%. This has an impact on investment in schools and education-related services. In addition, the World Bank also suggests that governments may act on social protection programs to avoid economic resilience so that people can invest more in health and education.

Why Study Spanish in Africa? Influence of Language
According to the Cervantes Institute, after the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the influence of Spanish in the country increased because of identification with other cultures. Likewise, this diversity has been represented in world events and competitions such as the Olympic Games, where coexistence and integration between Spanish-speaking and African countries flourish and are represented in mass media, reaching thousands of homes.

Interaction with Spanish-speaking countries, as well as the popularity of Latin rhythms and media content in general, may also influence students’ decision to learn this language, although the main causes are related to opportunities for personal and professional growth, especially when students have the desire to travel or emigrate to Spanish-speaking countries.

Spanish Students surveyed at the University of Pretoria shared their opinions about learning Spanish: most men learn it because of reputation, while women decide to study it because of their interest in languages. Truth be told, several students at that university are aware of the power of Spanish, as it is a requirement for a university degree in International Relations, Foreign Policy, or Language Teaching.

Finally, countries where French or Portuguese are spoken have also incorporated Spanish as an optional language in several of their schools. However, given the similarity of Spanish to these two languages, most students focus on English as a foreign language, due to its global position.

The presence of Spanish in sub-Saharan Africa is related to access to quality education and decent housing conditions. There is also a relationship between countries with a higher GDP per capita and the opportunities to invest in language learning, since, according to the results reported, there are more private than public schools in which Spanish is taught. It follows, therefore, that the more language study centers there are in a country, the greater the number of students who take a Spanish course will be. However, the scope of our study did not allow us to have an estimate of the number of students enrolled at the sites.

The study of Spanish, like that of foreign languages in general, is linked to labor, trade, and service relations being opened, but it is also associated with personal ambitions and desires, for example, cultural exchange, the desire to travel, emigrate or meet people who speak Spanish. In the future, the Spanish may extend within this same territory as long as the economic conditions of the countries do not impede people’s motivation. Today, teaching and learning media have changed drastically. A study is needed on the number of students taking face-to-face and online classes, as well as a study on the quality of the courses offered at these schools.

Josué Diego Ferreyra studies the Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language program at UNAM.

Banco Mundial (2021). PIB per cápita, África Subsahariana. https://datos.bancomundial.org/indicador/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD?end=2021&locations=ZG

Nistal R., Gloria (2011). El caso del español en Guinea Ecuatorial. Madrid: Instituto Cervantes (https://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/anuario/anuario_06-07/pdf/paises_08.pdf). 
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