In China, millennials embrace Spanish, Latin American culture and shake it up on TikTok

Yiling Ye, a student from Anji, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, China, spends time abroad at the University of Zaragoza in Spain.

© Courtesy of NBC News

Ye, 25, says she first started learning Spanish after hearing about its "excellent reputation." She said she felt a little different when she spoke Spanish.

"It's a really beautiful thing, very exciting," she said. "When I speak Chinese, I am calmer. When I speak English, I'm probably a little more open, and when I speak Spanish, I'm very "wow".

In addition to reading comics by Argentine-Spanish cartoonist Quino, Ye likes to keep up with Spanish-language TV shows and movies like "Tres Metros Sobre el Cielo", "Ocho Apellidos Vascos", "Diarios de Motocicleta" and Netflix's "Elite".

Scrolling through DouYin, the original Chinese version of TikTok that launched in 2016, features a host of users who aren't shy about flaunting their language skills. They include Chinese millennials lip-syncing videos and mashups in English - and showing their growing love for Spanish and Latin American culture.

How popular is the world's second most popular spoken language in China? The numbers speak for themselves.

There are about 50,000 Spanish speakers in China, a figure scientists say is growing every year. The language has become more popular as students enthusiastically share their new knowledge on social media.

"Spanish is making waves in China," Lu Jingsheng, author and national Spanish coordinator for the Chinese government, said in an interview.

Lu, who teaches at Shanghai International University of Studies, said the university previously only offered English, Japanese, and Russian as a second language. But that changed in 2017 with the addition of new programs and electives.

As Spanish grows in popularity, many Chinese students consider learning it an advantage as they will prepare for the Gaokao, a national college entrance exam that typically spans 2 days and takes students 9 hours to complete. Students often choose to test in Spanish or English for a foreign language part of the test.

Ye's enthusiasm for language and culture is not uncommon, especially among young people, Lu said. "We try to create an atmosphere that goes along with the culture of the language."

From video Zumba makeup tutorials-en Espa'ol

Media and entertainment play a leading role in language learning for Chinese millennials. Some have dedicated entire channels to DouYin in Spanish with vlogs and makeup tutorials.

For those who have difficulty rolling reliable Spanish R's, the content creators comically suggest rinsing a little water to mimic the rapid movements of the tongue.

© Courtesy Lulu Yang poses with antique cars during a work trip to Cuba. (Polite Lulu Yang)

Lulu Yang, a Spanish teacher and rising star of DouYin - has more than 10,000 followers-said her journey began after she took her first few Spanish electives. Yang, 28, who is originally from Beijing, says her father first encouraged her to start studying.

"Currently in China, English is very common, and more and more people know it," she said. "Without Spanish, I feel like I would be a very ordinary person, and that I would have a very ordinary job, but because of Spanish, I've been on many trips and visited many cities."

Young, who has lived in Spain and traveled to Cuba for work, launched her DouYin account in February last year when she had more free time during the pandemic.

"I just wanted to give it a try and I don't think it can grow that big," she said. "And then I thought,' OK, I can go on. I would like to share my experience."

From donning Latin American jewelry like large hoops and gold cross necklaces to dancing to Latin rhythms and remixes, young people in China are embracing a culture that is bold, loud, and slightly different from their own.

Young said she enjoys posting Zumba-style dance videos on her personal DouYin account, adding that she enjoys listening to Shakira, Luis Fonsi, and other artists. Using a well-known Chinese idiom, 能歌善舞 (n'ng g's s'n wǔ), Yang said that those who speak Spanish tend to be "people of many talents".

"If you are the type who learns the language very hard, then you are definitely open, lively and lively. You like to get in touch with new things, "Ian said." Everything I know, every job opportunity or love story I've had, is thanks to my Spanish."

© Courtesy of Scott Xia, 29, says he made a lot of friends while traveling in Mexico in 2014. (Polite Scott Xia)

Scott Xia, another DouYin content creator, and teacher who has nearly 3 million fans on the platform, said he also had unique opportunities because of his Spanish-language fluency.

Xia, 29, from Chengdu, Sichuan, started learning Spanish seven years ago, mostly on platforms like Duolingo, Netflix, and YouTube in the beginning. He often used Netflix to re-watch some of his favorites with Spanish subtitles and audio.

"I like ' Dragon Ball', and since I've already watched it, I already knew a lot of the content, " Xia said. "I automatically made these connections, and I won't have to use too much effort to figure it out" in Spanish.

He said that now that he works as a teacher, the main reason he posts educational content is that it lifts his spirits.

"Doing these things makes me very happy because I love learning languages," Xia said. "I can take these experiences with me and share them with everyone."

Xia also worked as a naval sailor, which allowed him to travel to Mexico and other places in Latin America.

"Look at the map. There are tons of Spanish-speaking countries. If you speak Chinese, English, and Spanish, then you're basically covering all your bases - no place you can't go ."

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