Spanish and Internationalization. The Experience of the University of Cadiz

F. Javier de Cos Ruiz
This article proposes an approach to the role that Spanish language plays today as a tool in the internationalization strategies of Spanish universities and focuses particularly on the situation of the University of Cadiz (UCA). Internationalization is a basic factor in the quest to improve the quality and efficiency of Spanish universities (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016: 14) and it is defined as: 

the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions, and delivery of post-secondary education, to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff and to make a meaningful contribution to society (De Wit et al., 2015: 29)

In Spain, no one disputes the interest of university institutions and higher education students in the internationalization of studies. If we focus on international mobility, although it is not an exclusive agent, it is clear that the Erasmus program [see box] plays a main role. The year 2022 marked the 32nd anniversary of this program and Spain has positioned itself, since 2001, as a preferred destination for European university students and as one of the countries with the highest number of outgoing students. In 2021, Spain was the country with the second highest number of Erasmus mobilities regarding incoming students and staff (35,359), behind France (38,668), and almost even with Germany (35,289). The favorite destinations of the 26,000 outgoing Spanish Erasmus students were Italy (21.3%), the United Kingdom (10.2%), France (9.8%), Poland (9.3%), and Germany (8.6%).

From Erasmus to Erasmus+ 

The Erasmus program, renewed for the period 2021-2027 as Erasmus+ with an overall budget of 28 billion euros, has benefited more than 12 million people. In the case of international study mobility in Spain, its growth was notorious in the 2001-2011 period, in which the number of incoming and outgoing mobilities doubled. Without the European educational programs, it would be impossible to understand the progress in the internationalization field, modernization, and innovation of the Spanish educational institutions; moreover, the growth of these programs during these years is, according to Alfonso Gentil Álvarez-Ossorio, Director of the Spanish Service for the Internationalization of Education (SEPIE, Spanish initials), “one of the most tangible achievements of the European integration, being the flagship of its policies.” 

At UCA, regarding international incoming student mobility (including Erasmus mobilities), it has gone from 489 students in the course of the pandemic (2020-2021) to 1150 between 2021 and 2022 and, the international outgoing, from 262 to 646. In both periods and both modalities, Germany, France, and Italy (not necessarily in this order) are the countries of origin and destination with the highest number of students.

In Spain, there is a complaint that the international recruitment of undergraduate students remains at discrete levels, especially when compared to that of the countries in our immediate environment and also if we take into account our potential “with an educational system in a language with an international projection as is Spanish” (Luna García & Viudes, 2017: 61). Strategies aimed at improving the internationalization profile of universities do not only involve offering degrees in a foreign language, particularly English, or increasing the number of credits of subjects taught in English to attract international students and, therefore, considering the quantitative aspect of incoming and outgoing mobility (this is the visible internationalization). It is also necessary to contemplate the quality of publications as an enriching element (invisible internationalization) and the creation of collaborative professional and research networks (necessary internationalization) (Bazo Martínez & González Álvarez, 2017: 6).

The document Estrategia para la internacionalización de las universidades españolas 2015-2020 [Strategy for the internationalization of Spanish universities 2015-2020] (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016) proposed four lines of action, one of which is to increase the international appeal of our universities. The others are to consolidate a highly internationalized university system, to promote international competitiveness of the environment, and to intensify cooperation in higher education with other regions of the world. To this end, it was recommended as an operational objective “to increase the number of bilingual undergraduate and graduate programs taught in Spanish and English or other foreign languages” and, as an action, “to promote learning a sufficient level of English” among teaching and research, administrative and academic personnel. To apply homogeneous criteria related to internationalization language policies and to facilitate decision-making by educational authorities to implement measures to promote internationalization through foreign languages, the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities (CRUE, Spanish initials) presented three lines of action with a package of measures each, diversified according to the target group (students, teachers, and administration and services personnel): language certification, training for language development, and incentive programs (Bazo Martínez & González Álvarez, 2017). 

Aligned with other Spanish universities, the internationalization policy of UCA, under the umbrella of its Strategic Plan 2021-24, and as a leader in the consortium of the European University of the Seas (SEA-EU), leads to an ethical position that defends the contribution to human progress, sustainable development, and solidarity among peoples and cultures, within a framework of personal and collective growth. Strategies in this area promote the improvement of training for our students, teachers, researchers, and administrative and service personnel, fostering a gradual process of integration that involves a common awareness of the entire university community.

On one hand, institutional strengthening is pursued through the establishment of international relations, which invites to increase in number and improves qualitatively the outgoing mobilities of these groups, for which it is essential to have sufficient linguistic competence. On the other hand, a strong point of our university policy is in-house internationalization, which seeks to maximize, in an interconnected world, the sharing of intercultural experiences and best practices. We must take advantage of the opportunity provided by the inclusion and coexistence of international students with our national students, faculty, and administrative and service personnel that represent key stakeholders in this policy that, marked by globalization, seeks to build bridges of understanding with the international community. Although it mainly speaks English, Chinese, and Spanish, from the point of view of incoming mobility, expresses itself in many other languages, among which Romanic languages (mainly French, Italian, and Portuguese), as well as Russian and Arabic, occupy a prominent place due to the ties of interest that link us to higher education centers in these language areas.

This road we are traveling together is about promoting internationalization in its teaching, research, and management aspects, progressively incorporating good practices through multilingual strategies and experiences in the subjects, to contribute in a profitable way to the assumption of bilingualism in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Whether from the point of view of outgoing mobility or considering in-house internationalization, in today’s scenario, it is necessary to highlight the figure of the linguistic assistant or reader as a fundamental protagonist. In this sense, the existence of reading coordinators and tutors was unofficially recognized at five centers of our university, but the Vice-rectorate for Internationalization, as a first step of a necessary path, promoted the official recognition of the work of these teachers in their academic dedication plan.

To strengthen the project and give it coherence that would ensure a continuity consistent with the new objectives, in line with the internationalization plans of each center, and with the knowledge of the departments responsible for linguistic matters, it was necessary to formalize the human teams in charge of coordinating and tutoring, within the framework of a program of incoming readers of languages, the tasks of the readers—16 in the first cycle of 2022 and 17 in the second—whether they are linguistic or non-linguistic based subjects. The languages involved are Arabic, English, French, and German. Academic work is carried out in seven centers plus two extensions. From the point of view of internationalization outside Spain, Spanish is promoted in post-Soviet countries through a program for outgoing readers of Spanish, which in the first cycle of 2022 had 11 participants in five countries.

The language policy of the UCA, in this area of internationalization, follows the path outlined by the CRUE so that its strategic plan covers the three fronts: language certification, training for language development, and incentive programs, to account for the fulfillment of the course of action—to promote the internationalization of our educational offer (undergraduate, and postgraduate degrees)—taking advantage of the suitability provided by blended and distance learning, as well as the opportunity offered by the SEA-EU consortium and our positioning in different geographical areas (Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Morocco). The aim is to act in four main areas: increasing incoming and, above all, outgoing international mobility; implementing virtual and combined mobility; promoting in-house internationalization for students, teachers, researchers, and academic and service personnel; and Spanish as an international asset. For language training, the UCA relies on the human and material resources of its Higher Center for Modern Languages, which is responsible for the non-regulated teaching of German, Moroccan Arabic, French, Italian, English, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish sign language, as well as Spanish as a foreign language (ELE, Spanish initials), in addition to the methodological training courses for ELE teachers.

The need to continue working on the development of the potential of the Spanish language as an asset not only linguistic and cultural, but also economical (Jiménez & Narbona Moreno, 2012: 176), in the field of higher education, both in Spanish-speaking countries and, particularly, in all those that show a growing interest in Hispanic language and cultures. This is even though in Spain this consideration of Spanish as an important asset for our internationalization policies has been overshadowed by the emphasis on improving foreign language skills, in line with the trend of English Taught Programs (ETP) and the teaching of subjects in English (English as a Medium of Instruction, EMI) as instruments of internationalization, a trend that has been present in universities all over the world for more than twenty-five years and is closely related to the offer of Content and Language Integrated Learning that is being developed at the national and regional levels, since the cycles before the university level.

But it should not be forgotten that Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world [see infographic in pages 14-15]. The number of Spanish speakers will continue to grow over the next five decades, although its relative weight will gradually decrease so that by 2100 it is expected that only 600 million people (6.3% of the world’s population) will be able to communicate in our language. Spanish is also the third most used language on the Internet, after English and Chinese. On most digital platforms, including social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Wikipedia), Spanish ranks second. However, only one Spanish-speaking country is among the 10 with the highest number of Internet users: Mexico. In the ranking of the most studied second languages, Spanish competes with French and Mandarin Chinese for second place. Nearly 24 million students study it as a foreign language. The greater number of commercial exchanges that take place between Spanish-speaking countries and the rest of the world influence this situation. In addition, recognition as an official language in the main international forums and the constant growth of the Spanish-speaking community contribute to strengthening the attractiveness of Spanish as a foreign language.

This reflection leads, then, to the debate on whether our universities should blindly assume that the best form of internationalization goes through teaching in English or, on the other hand, they should bet on multilingualism as a necessity of the globalized world in which we live, insisting “on the legitimate place of Spanish as a global language for collaboration and academic and scientific exchange” (De Wit et al., 2017: 69). In this sense, the Spanish Government raises as part of its general objective to take advantage of the potential of Spanish as a language for higher education (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2016: 32). In this context, the European Union is committed to “raising awareness of the value and opportunities offered by the EU’s linguistic diversity and encouraging the removal of obstacles to intercultural dialogue” (Commission of the European Communities, 2008: 5).

Spain’s appeal for Erasmus students and the fact that there are, among the more than 24 million students of Spanish as a foreign language, a large number of potential candidates to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in Spain, together with being the second most spoken language and the importance of Spanish in international trade are strong reasons for “our universities to recognize and take full advantage of these opportunities and expressly incorporate them into their internationalization strategies” (Kelly, 2017: 51). From the point of view of international communication, positioned as the second most important language in the international sphere, Spanish ranks third in terms of recognition as a working language within the United Nations system, behind English and French, and fourth in the institutional sphere of the European Union, preceded by English, French, and German. At the European Commission, it is a “language of translation”, i.e. most of the Spanish texts generated are translations from other languages. As a novelty produced by Brexit, the relative weight of Spanish in Europe, like that of the other official languages, has increased due to the drastic reduction of the group of native English speakers (Instituto Cervantes, 2022: 47-55). In addition, Spanish is the most widely used language in American and Ibero-American integration organizations.

We promote internationalization in its teaching, research, and management aspects, incorporating good practices

This is why Spanish universities, unlike those of other European countries, can and should be committed to approve bilingual degrees in Spanish and English, offering all students training in two of the languages that can generate the most opportunities for them. For these reasons, the Spanish language is a valuable tool for the internationalization of universities. By offering programs and courses in Spanish, universities can attract international students interested in learning the language and learning more about Spanish and Latin American cultures. In addition, by having an online presence in Spanish, universities can reach a global audience of potential students. Offering education programs in Spanish improves the language proficiency of students and teachers, which can be a competitive advantage when seeking employment or establishing business and academic relationships in Spanish-speaking countries. In short, offering programs and courses in Spanish should be an effective strategy to attract international students and improve the linguistic competence of students and teachers, which will have a very positive impact on the internationalization of the university. 
Javier de Cos Ruiz Ph.D. is the General Director of Language Policy at the University of Cadiz, Spain.

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Kelly, Dorothy (2017). “Política lingüística para la internacionalización: el español como activo”, en Pérez-Encinas, Adriana; Howard, Laura; Rumbley. Laura E., & De Wit, Hans (Coords. Eds.) Internacionalización de la educación superior en España: reflexiones y perspectivas. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación y Formación Profesional.

Luna García, Antoni, & Viudes, Maite (2017). “Un poco de historia sobre el marketing y la captación de estudiantes internacionales en las universidades españolas”. In Pérez-Encinas, Adriana; Howard, Laura; Rumbley. Laura E., & De Wit, Hans (Coords. Eds.) (2017). Internacionalización de la educación superior en España: reflexiones y perspectivas, cit. 

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