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.So 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.
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.
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?