As mentioned in an previous post, our international guests notice the sharp difference between Spain and other European countries like Germany, the Netherlands or in Scandinavia, 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. 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. 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.
A second root of Spain’s struggle with English comes from its education system. There are two core issues with Spain’s English education: under-qualified teachers, and lack of emphasis on speaking. (Sometime ago we witnessed a ‘conversation’ in Bar Polear between an Englishman and a local English teacher: mutual knowledge of sign languaga would have been so welcome…) Efforts are being made to remedy qualification and spaeking, but change is slow. Starting last school year all teachers in public bilingual schools in Andalucía need a (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.
A third problem that Spain has with English, and ‘things’ in general, is that the Spaniards are deathly afraid of making mistakes. Part of the language learning process is making mistakes and learning from them. 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 internalised 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.