Why is Spain so “bad” at English?

I am immune to Spain’s economic crisis. I will likely never be part of the 26.8% national unemployment nor the 57% youth unemployment. Every time that I have looked for work, I have been contacted and offered a job by every place I’ve sent my CV. Why? Because I’m an English teacher, and English isn’t exactly Spain’s strong suit.

Tourists notice the sharp difference between Spain and other European countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland, where English is widely spoken. Yet here, in spite of dedicating time and resources to English education, only 1 in 10 people claim to have an advanced level. As a friend of mine puts it, Siempre estamos estudiando pero nunca aprendemos. We’re always studying but we never learn, he says.bilinguesSo why is Spain so “bad” at English? Why are they so behind the rest of Europe? As to be expected, it’s a variety of factors.

First of all, let’s get historical. Franco deserves a portion of the blame for Spain’s difficulties with English today. The Spanish dictator from 1936-75, he declared Castilian to be the only official language. Spain was closed off to the rest of the world in many ways, and today they are still playing catch up to succeed in global markets. Under Franco publications in other languages were forbidden, and the custom of dubbing foreign films in Spanish began. Today, in the vast majority of non-English speaking countries, foreign films are seen in their original version with subtitles in the native language. But Spain dubs nearly all films and TV shows into Spanish. Major cities will have some limited options for original version films in movie theaters, but it’s definitely the exception, not the rule.

In countries that only use subtitles on foreign language films the people are exposed to a great deal of English thanks to American media. Even though they are reading in their native language, they are listening to English. For someone who spends their entire life watching movies this way, a lot sinks in and eventually the subtitles may not even be necessary. Spain, however, passes on this enormous opportunity. Even though their cinemas and televisions are full of American media, they get no linguistic benefit. Listening to native speakers is incredibly important in learning English because of the tonality of the language, and also because pronunciation often has little to do with spelling- something that Spanish speakers are used to relying on in their own language.

A second root of Spain’s struggle with English comes from its education system. Having spent the last three years working in public schools, this is something I’ve gotten a glimpse of personally. There are two core issues with Spain’s English education: underqualified teachers, and lack of emphasis on speaking. Efforts are being made to remedy both of these, but change is slow. In the last three years I have worked alongside some teachers with incredible levels of English, who are doing a great service passing on their knowledge to their pupils. But certainly not all.

No cover for your red summer in this bar

No cover for your red summer in this bar

I can’t begin to tell how many times I’ve cringed upon seeing “Very well” instead of “Very good” written on student work to hand back, or hearing teachers butcher pronunciation to the point that I don’t know what they’re trying to say. I understand that teaching first graders the days of the week doesn’t require mastery of the passive voice and third conditional. However, children are sponges and absorb everything, mistakes and all. When I correct my adult students, it’s often for things that they have believed to be correct since primary school.

Starting this school year all teachers in public bilingual schools in Andalucía need a B2 (advanced) level in the language that corresponds to their school, whether or not they teach in that language. French and German bilingual schools do exist, but the vast majority are English.

Schools also have the problem that English classes tend to be very focused on grammar and reading, and have very little time dedicated to speaking. Almost all of the private classes I have had with adults begin with the same conversation. “I know lots of grammar and I read and understand fairly well, but have no practice speaking or maintaining a conversation.” The system leaves students completely inept if they encounter English-speaking tourists in Spain, and even more if they ever travel and need to use English. The program I was in the last three years, Auxiliares de Conversación, is supposed to be the remedy to this problem. Depending on how well a school utilizes their language assistant it can be a great help, but between budget cuts and poor coordination it’s simply not enough.

A third problem that Spain has with English, and languages in general, is that they are deathly afraid of making mistakes. Part of the language learning process is making mistakes and learning from them. I’ve had many students who were scared stiff of me, too ashamed to say anything beyond “Good morning” out of fear of saying something wrong in front of the native speaker. If only I had a euro for every time I asked a question to a class and only got crickets and thirty faces avoiding eye contact with me. I understand the feeling of inadequacy when you recognize that you don’t know something. To acquire a language is to stumble and crawl until you can finally walk. You will feel like a child. It will hurt your pride. And it is something that the majority of Spanish people have difficulty coping with.

Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, quite infamously doesn't speak much English

Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, quite infamously doesn’t speak much English

Last but not least, Spain has internalized this “handicap” and accepted it as part of their identity. To many, it’s comical how bad they are at English. Some even write it off as being in their genes. I avoid speaking Spanish in class at all costs to encourage students not to revert back to their native tongue. For someone who believes that they simply can’t speak English, every phrase is a conscious effort. They slip into Spanish to offer me something to drink (for in home classes), to open or close the window, and to apologize when their cell phone rings during class. “And now in English,” I demand, because most of the time they have the vocabulary to put the sentence together. It’s just that the idea of using English to communicate something real, something connected to the actual world and not the textbook is unfathomable. Many of the adult students I’ve had see English as something they need for their job. They need to be able to have certain conversations with a particular vocabulary set. But they don’t expect to ever read a book in English, or to travel to England and strike up a conversation with someone in a bar.

I need to add a humongous disclaimer to all of this: There are Spaniards who speak perfect English, who have dedicated themselves to their studies, and who have taken advantage of every opportunity they could to learn. I have met some people who have left me speechless with their level of English. This is my proof that all of the hurdles that Spain has can be overcome. Everything that I have said are generalizations which have exceptions. Amazing exceptions who have worked hard to be in the minority of Spanish people who speak advanced, if not fluent English.

For the Spain’s sake I hope that there comes a day when finding work isn’t so easy for me, but until then I will leave work happy everyday knowing that I am helping the cause.

Why do you think Spain struggles with English?

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9 Responses to Why is Spain so “bad” at English?

  1. Super interesting! I do consider myself lucky that I get to CHOOSE which job I take because I have so many options. My boyfriend speaks really, really well and is constantly stealing my CAE books to study, and only reads in English. Anyway, I do think that the mindset and the huge change in education (getting rid of BUP and other general education in favor of the baccalaureate) has a lot to do with the problem, and apparently it’s worse in Andalucia than other areas of Spain. My first day as an auxiliar, my boss told me in plain English, ‘Be prepared, we Andalusians are famous for speaking English poorly.’

  2. ebostick1212 says:

    I am pretty sure there is an old video on Youtube of Franco trying to speak English….it definitely explains a lot!

  3. Christine says:

    I loved this, very true on all points. I know for me, the fear of making mistakes in Spanish will be the death of me. I have to get over it!
    On the flip side, I love the people who say their English is awful as they have a fluid hour long conversation with you. If only my Spanish (Andalu) was a quarter of that. Lol!

  4. Alisa says:

    What a great post! I think a lot about why Spaniards struggle so much with English despite their best efforts, and I think you’ve clearly outlined many of the reasons here. Darn tele doblada and verguenza española!

  5. This is really interesting to read after living in Germany, and the widely spoken English was a huge draw to Germany for me. I understand studying and not learning, however, because I took Spanish for 8 years growing up and never at all felt comfortable with it. I think in the countries you mentioned, English is spoken in the business environment, which maybe Spain is lacking.

    • Amy says:

      Definitely true. A lot of my adult students are professionals who suddenly find themselves needing to use English at work- something they never had to do until recently.

  6. Pingback: Required Reading for Future English Teachers in Spain - Spanish Sabores

  7. I worked in a bilingual primary school in Madrid for a year and everything you have said is true. This is a great post 🙂
    I think part of the problem is not necessarily that some teachers have a lack of knowledge but they have strong Spanish accents, which are passed onto the children. Also the mistakes that they make in English is what their teacher taught them so it gets passed on from one generation to the next.
    I found that there are many children who struggle in the bilingual system who have issues with their own language and they would get taken out of their subjects taught in English for extra help in Spanish. These children end up repeating a year or two during their time at the bilingual primary because they fail their English subjects, which I don’t think is fair that they are made to go to a bilingual school when they struggle in their own language. The Spanish bilingual primary system is flawed because their is no guarantee that the students will go onto a bilingual high school. There was many students in the school I was at that had a good level of English by the end of grade 6. However, they did not do good enough on their exams so they were getting separated from their friends and put into a different high school where they would only get English lessons 3 times a week. This would mean that their English would be far better than the children who didn’t go to a bilingual primary meaning that their English language growth would be stunted.

    Sorry for the long rant but the Spanish education is failing these children even if they are bring in native speakers half the time it is difficult to get them to unlearn their mistakes. The one thing that annoyed me the most was their response to ‘how are you?’ ‘I am fine thank you, and you?’. When I taught them different words to respond to the question like good, or great, not good etc. they would forget to ask the question back.

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