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Why are the Spanish ‘so bad’ at speaking English?

After a global study earlier this month ranked Spain among the worst in the EU when it comes to speaking English, The Local asked its readers why, in their opinion, the country is struggling so much with its English language skills.

Why are the Spanish 'so bad' at speaking English?
Photo: andreasmarx / Flickr

The new English Proficiency Index (EPI) from global language training company Education First (EF) suggests the Spanish are making very little progress when it comes to mastering English with Spain ranked the worst in the EU… even below the notoriously-bad-at-English French and Italians.

READ MORE:  Spain now ranked worst in EU at speaking English

But what is it that makes the Spanish struggle with learning English? 

Emphasis on grammar

Photo: Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr


Charles Bulch thought that the education system in Spain was partly to blame, and that the standard of English taught by the Spanish themselves was, in his opinion, letting students down.

“While there are still teachers in schools who say /bi:skwi:t/ instead of /biskit/ ; while students treat English as a lark and an excuse for some daft carry on; while the top teaching jobs are a closed shop, Spain will lag behind.”

Jane D, who moved to Spain from Australia and has taught English here to Spaniards, blamed the poor standard on a lack of respect for English teachers as a whole.

“From my perspective, there’s no respect for English teachers here. The pay is appalling, and the academies and private schools make all the money. We are not paid for any prep time, nor for travel. Sometimes it works out to be about €2-€3 an hour if you add up all the work we put in,” she explained.

But she also thought that the emphasis Spain puts on grammar learning could also be turning people off.

 “Unfortunately the system of training within Spain is extremely heavy on the grammar, with little emphasis on just practicing speaking.  This puts many people off learning, as they can’t see the advantages of speaking English. Also, there’s a huge lack of confidence about their ability to speak,” she said.

Lack of confidence

Helen Thompson agrees that lack of confidence is damaging Spain’s proficiency in English.

“I find the key problem is with the flow of the language and not their lack of knowledge of the language. It’s their confidence to say what they are thinking,” she explains.

“Tuition in just plain speaking and listening needs to be added to the learning programme as pure grammar alone does not help with conversation.”

Helen helpfully suggests that conducting singalongs to English tunes seems to help with this problem.

Too much dubbing

Photo:Felipe Andreoli/Flickr


Some readers were quick to point out that if only Spain didn’t dub its imported television programmes and  English language films, language learning would naturally improve.

“I think it lies in the fact that the Spanish market is big enough to ensure that many movies and TV shows justify vocal dubbing so there is no need to 'listen' in English,” pointed out Gordon Rae.

Steve Day, a retired Brit who lives in Caceres in Extremadura, compared Spain to neighbouring Portugal which ranks among the top in English proficiency.  

“It's not so far from Portugal where I live,” he explained. “And the fact that cinema and TV are shown in original versions in Portugal but not in Spain is often cited by my Spanish friends. I complimented a Portuguese waitress in Porto on her excellent English last year (she was also fluent in Spanish) and she replied that it was thanks to the TV.”

Runar Karlsson agrees: “Having lived in a number of countries including Norway, Iceland and Spain, I think the main reason is that the general public in Spain and especially the young people are not as exposed to English as those in many other (smaller) countries,” he said.

“Youngsters in Norway, Iceland, Holland, for instance, are picking up the English language in daily exposure watching videos, TV etc.  But in Spain, everything is dubbed which I think is to blame (or praise) for the lack of English fluency.”

Spaniards learning English isn't the problem! 

Some people justly pointed out that in fact, the Spanish were much better at mastering the English language than many of those English speakers who choose to visit, or even make their home here.

“What struck me was the failure of the tourists even to bother to use 'por favor y gracias',” said Steve Day after witnessing an exchange between bar staff and English speaking visitors.

After a recent visit to Granada (to learn Spanish), Englishman Roderick Boucher was struck by how tolerant locals were to his faltering language efforts.  

“We were treated with warmth and courtesy everywhere and my faltering language efforts were benignly accepted. I suspect that this welcoming of inept foreign language speakers would not be reciprocated in Boris and Nigel's xenophobic “little Britain”. In fact I know damn well it wouldn't,” he remarked.

“Stop beating yourselves up on the language. After all most English people have no clue as to their own grammar. The only person to really understand it was a Dane, Jespersen. Instead rejoice in living in such an English-friendly culture and thank your Spanish hosts for it.”

Michael Meehan agreed: “Perhaps the accolade, if you can call it that, of the most monophone nation in Europe should go to the English,” he said.

“As an Englishman living in Spain I see no reason why the Spanish should feel any necessity to learn English,” commented Kerry Burns who lives in the Alpujarra, south of Granada.

“Fine if they want to, but no shame in not doing. Much more a feature of life here is the English person who can’t be bothered to learn Spanish, that seems quite antisocial to me.”

He added: “People here in Lanjaron are very supportive of my attempts at Spanish,  and very good humoured regarding my mistakes.”

Is Spain really that bad? 

Photo: Susana Fernandez/Flickr


Mark Levy, the head of English programmes at the British Council bilingual programme in Spain believes that surveys like the EF one aren’t necessarily helpful.

“What it doesn’t show is how vastly Spain has improved in English language learning over the last two decades,” he tells The Local over the phone.

Although he admits that all of the above reasons have a negative impact on proficiency – grammar focused learning, dubbing over English – Spain is now on the right track.

“English Language Teaching (ELT) hadn’t been hugely successful as a largely grammar focussed approach. It meant people could pass exams but couldn’t communicate,” he said explaining Spain's traditional approach to learning a foreign language.

“But one of the drivers of change has been the bilingual programme which is not grammar based and sees a whole generation of children now leaving school comfortable in English,” he said.

The bilingual project run in partnership by the British Council and Spain’s Ministry of Culture launched as a national project in 43 schools in 1996.

Now, there are 145 schools across Spain within the British Council programme and numerous others in programmes run by regional education boards.

“Around 1.5 million children are currently learning at least one subject in English at school,” cites Levy.

“So it’s a huge investment in English learning and those that have gone through that system haven’t yet been included in the survey data because they are below 25,” he said.

“Anyone going into classrooms will report a complete paradigm shift in how Spanish children react to English, which is now one of the languages of the classroom. They are comfortable in it, the fear has gone.  

 “And when those kids that have been through the system become teachers themselves, Spain will leap ahead,” predicted Levy. “So obviously Spain is improving.”


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For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.