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Two parts cultural commentary, one part personal ranting. Serve with a side of political debate. May contain sarcasm.

Why Spain Needs to Stop the Obsession with Learning English
17 September 2014 @ 23:07

I probably shouldn't be saying this, because all these people wanting to learn English is keeping me in business, but Spain really does need to calm it on the English obsession.
 
Spain has huge problems. It is politically corrupt. It has an economic system which is rotten to the core. It has the second highest rate of child poverty in Europe (1). Its education system is so shockingly bad that a graduate from a university in Spain has the same skill-set as a 15-year-old teenager from Japan (2).
 
A lot needs to be done if Spain wants to become a prosperous nation and someone has come up with the bright idea that learning English will solve everyone's problems.
 
Problem is, it won't. There is a link between the prosperity of a country and its ability to speak multiple languages. Most people in Northern European countries are fluent in English. Japan and Korea are pretty good at it too. But this correlation is misleading; they’re not rich countries because they have mastered English (though this probably does help international business and such), they’re rich because they have strong educational, political and economic systems. And a strong work ethic. 
 
But it’s easier to assume that speaking more English = better prosperity. 
 
So English has become the new craze. Like loom bands. English and loom bands. Everyone in Spain now needs to speak English and then all of the problems will magically go away.
 
There is 26% unemployment here, which rises to 55% for young people (3) and the idea is that if everyone learns English then everyone will be more employable and that will solve that problem. Which is scary.
 
Languages are useful. But it doesn't guarantee you a job. And it's not necessary for most jobs; postmen, electricians, PE teachers; they don't need to speak a second language. Neither really do doctors or lawyers or engineers. Yeah it's got its advantages (more academic journals are published in English, therefore you can learn more about your subject etc. etc.) but you can do a perfectly splendid job without it. 
 
Being multi-lingual doesn’t automatically make you a superior nurse or accountant or personal trainer. Much more goes into it than that.
 
But Spaniards have been brain-washed into thinking otherwise. The other day I picked up a leaflet advertising jobs in Stradavarius, a clothes shop. They only had two questions; what is your availability for work and what languages do you speak. There was enough space to write four foreign languages. Obviously it hadn't crossed their minds that if someone can speak four foreign languages they're probably not going to be interested in working in a clothes shop.
 
Then there's this new law which requires all teachers in public schools to hold a certificate proving that they have a B2 level of English. All teachers. Regardless of what subject they actually teach. I've got a guy who teaches PE in Primary schools, who has been doing it for years, and who is probably really good at it. But he's shit at English. It's just not his forté. There’s not a linguistic bone in his body. But unless he somehow passes a B2 exam in September he's at risk of losing his job. His job teaching PE.
 
So what's happening is that people are prioritising speaking English over other, more useful and more necessary skills
 
Stradavarius aren't asking potential employees, say, if they have any experience working in a shop, or if they're good with people or if they're organised or interested in fashion or any of the other things necessary to be a good Shop Assistant. And no one cares if Paco is good at teaching PE, if he's a good role model for his kids, if he's patient and kind and inspiring. No, they only care if he can speak English.
 
Spain really needs to stop this obsession with learning English or it risks putting people who are good at their job, out of work.
 
It’s also going to have a very serious consequence on people’s attitude to language learning; when you are forced to study something, something that you don’t really care much about, or that you’re not particularly good at, you start hating it.
 
Remember school? Remember being forced to memorise the definition of osmosis, Pythagoras’s theory, the 13 French verbs that conjugate with etre in the past tense instead of avoir? Remember the anger we all felt? Remember thinking “this is a bloody waste of time, I’m never going to use this in real life!”? Well that’s exactly what is happening now with people being forced to take up English again.
 
It’s risking making everyone resent English.
 
I’ve noticed a marked change in the attitude of students. Especially since the teacher law thing. There are now so many  people that come to me saying “I don’t care about speaking English, I just need to pass this exam to keep my job”.
 
I also get parents forcing their kids to take extra classes because they think it will secure their future. I want to just shake them and tell them; “look at your son, he’s seven, and can’t string a sentence together in English after three months of one-to-one classes. He hates speaking. But when he holds a pencil in his hand, he transforms. He is creative and colourful and resourceful. His imagination is out of this world. This kid is not a linguist. He is an artist. An architect. A designer”. But I can’t say this.
 
I want to say “your daughter is 18 and has failed three years of English exams at school, not because she’s not bright, but because her skills lie elsewhere. She’s brave and funny and sociable. Her instinct and logic is flawless. She's just not academic”. But I can’t say this. People do not want to hear this. Not in Spain.
 
However, my seven-year-old’s older brother is gifted at English. Sometimes he makes me want to cry from pride at how articulate and resourceful and expressive he can be. He is a born linguist. And this should be encouraged and nurtured. But it’s hit and miss. Some people should be encouraged to learn languages, others, like his brother, should not be. 
 
Learning languages is not for everyone, and it is foolish to assume that it is.
 
I’m not saying Spain should stop encouraging people to learn English. I’m saying Spain should stop forcing everyone to learn English. In doing this, in pursuing this obsession, people who are skilled and talented in other areas are at risk of being overlooked, side-lined, disregarded. It is risking telling people that they are not valuable members of society unless they can speak English. And that’s worrying.
 
Languages are great, but too much of a good thing will only have negative consequences in the long term. People, sooner or later, will get sick of learning English. They’ll realise that it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to their employability or to the quality of work done in Stradavarius or in PE lessons or to Spain’s prosperity. Just like the loom band craze will surely be replaced with something else new and shiny, so too will the idea that learning English is a guarantee to success. And the sooner that happens, the better. The sooner I can go back to teaching students that actually, genuinely, want to learn. 
 
References


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19 Comments


eggcup said:
18 September 2014 @ 09:26

Hi Jessica. There is a lot of truth in what you say. I'd say the circumstances in which it is very important to master English though, is when Spaniards want to work in the UK for example. I've met quite a few qualified engineers, occupational therapists etc. who because of their poor English can't get jobs in the UK in their chosen careers. They then have to work behind bars which isn't what they want.
I'm also amazed at the amount of resources poured into learning English in Spanish schools and most young Spaniards I know and meet are appalling at English. They seem to lack both confidence and ability! The education authorities should try and learn from the Swedes or Dutch for example, who often speak English like natives. They are doing something really wrong in Spain.
I also wonder why they can't stop dubbing every foreign programme or film and subtitle it instead. The Portuguese do this and their level of English is a lot higher in my experience. That would be a simple way to gradually increase their exposure to English in a way they wouldn't resent, if they love the programmes or films.


jess869 said:
18 September 2014 @ 11:23

I completely agree. The dubbing is a good point, but you always have the option to watch the programme in "versión original" (which gives you the original English programme with subtitles in Spanish). The problem is no one does!


nancyisabella said:
18 September 2014 @ 11:48

I find myself in the same situation as I too teach English, but I completely agree with you. In fact I have been saying it for a while. Here in Madrid a lot of the state schools are now bilingual, my 3 year old had just started (but then he does speak English!). What many parents neglect to take into account is that they maybe doing more harm than good. If a child is having difficulty learning maths in Spanish why on earth do you think he is going to be able to learn maths in English! I taught English to two brothers one 11 years old and the other 9, the 11 year old was a wizz at English whereas his brother had to come for extra classes so that I could teach him his science class that was in English, but the poor kid didn't understand the science or the English. Basically in a few years time these children will be leaving school with low results in everything and terrible English. What do they do then? I also find that many of the teachers that are teaching classes in English don't speak/write it well!


RiojaRosie said:
18 September 2014 @ 14:34

I love the passion in your posts Jess, the opinionated side of you, the ranty pants side of you and the common sense side of you shines thro in everything I have read. You put each case forward in a considered way, and whilst there is a LOT of text to get through, all of the posts held my interest. Great stuff. Rxx



jess869 said:
18 September 2014 @ 15:11

Thanks. That's so kind of you.
Ranty pants- never heard that before but love it. Might be stealing that one!


harddunby said:
20 September 2014 @ 09:24

Various EU country's change the foreign language criteria over the decades. France moved from English to Spanish to German in schools. Essentially it's political .


wodger said:
20 September 2014 @ 10:35

It is true that English is the universal second language (except for the residents of GB, USA & OZ/NZ etc. ) It is likely that people believe that a good knowledge of English will enable them to work in the rest of the world.


pedrolittle said:
20 September 2014 @ 10:37

I like your blog a lot Jess. I will always follow it in future.
Aspiring writer? I think you write very well indeed(although you might want to edit what you write a little more!) It´s what you say that matters, and I totally agree with you. I think nancyisabella has good point that the standard of English teaching in schools is poor.


mdavidfrost said:
20 September 2014 @ 11:39

EVERYONE should learn one or two languages these days. If you're an English-speaker, Spanish is an obvious first choice. For Spaniards, English is the logical choice. Then after English and Spanish another language, then another, and another. Anyone can learn languages. It's just a matter of motivation.



alant said:
21 September 2014 @ 11:54

Before teaching English to children Spain should make certain that English teachers speak English.
When my grandson started English lessons at seven years old is English was far superior to the teachers( his first language is Spanish).
In the past I have employed unemployed Spaniards who had qualified as English teachers who in the majority of cases had a poor standard of English.


nrosullivan said:
21 September 2014 @ 17:17

Hello, Jessica. Good article. I have lived here (in Granada) for a very long time and, on several occasions, have been almost begged to teach English (because I also speak Spanish more or less fluently). Every time, I have flatly refused. Why ? Because I don't want a world where everybody speaks English. I love languages and think that different languages are an essential part of the variety and richness of the world. Whatever country I go to or have gone to, I always try and learn a bit of the language before I go. And it is fun ! The only teaching I have ever done here (as a Cambridge M.A.)is to teach English people to speak Spanish. Shamefully few do, even if they live here, and it is a disgrace. Teach English residents to speak Spanish, teach Americans to speak English,,then we can think about teaching Spaniards English. As you say, not that many really need to and they do find the sounds very difficult.


nrosullivan said:
21 September 2014 @ 17:27

PS. I have only ever met one Spaniard in my entire life who can speak perfect, undetectable English.! Even one of my very best friends, who spent three years at Portsmouth University, speaks lamentable English - although he always wants to speak in English. After ten minutes or so, we always revert to Spanish !!! I also agree with Jess869. I really hate "dubbed" films with a passion. After all, an actor's voice and the way he delivers his lines is a tool of his trade. It is a ghastly practice introduced by Franco's censors so that they could understand what was being said. Spain has ditched almost everything else related with the Franco régime; why not this brain-numbing stupidity?


Sheila Thompson said:
22 September 2014 @ 21:15

I'm a qualified TEFL teacher in a large village in Andalucia and I agree with so many points made here.

My main concern is the standard of spoken English that many Spanish teachers of English have. The mixing of American and British English without being aware of the differences is a good example.
I teach all ages and abilities but I despair when I hear adult students unable to string a sentence together or who pronounce basic words incorrectly. At least with children I can correct them from the beginning but at school they'll revert to what the teacher says!
I believe nothing will improve until the government does something about:
dubbed films, which I hate with a passion as other commentators do.

insist that TV adverts containing foreign words should be pronounced correctly. Fairy liquid not fiery liquid is a prime example.

That all teachers of English must have proper training from NATIVE BRITISH teachers before starting to teach and have ongoing help.

Forget most bilingual schools! The only subject to be taught in English should be English but to a much higher standard than now.
Why should teachers of other subjects suddenly have to acquire a B2 in English. It seems totally unfair.

I have recently come across students doing Trinity B1 exams as they believe they are easier than Cambridge exams. All they care about is getting a B1.
Having said all this I have had several students who due to their level of English have got good jobs overseas. So for those who are prepared to work abroad, having a good level of English has proved invaluable.



wodger said:
23 September 2014 @ 09:59

Yes Sheila, I agree that foreign words should be pronounced correctly. Forty years ago my wife who is from Eastern Europe learnt English from an Indian teacher, She used to speak with an Indian accent ( people of course thought she was Welsh )


eggcup said:
23 September 2014 @ 10:17

Hey wodger. How astute to have noticed the Welsh-Indian connection. Actors often screw this up when they try and put on a Welsh accent. And how interesting it is: how one accent from such a different place in the world can sound so similar to another. More food for thought.


Don Tim said:
27 September 2014 @ 09:53

No oone has mentioned tourism and its related sector residential tourism. I think a lot more jobs here rely on people speaking English, whether you like it or not a bar/cafe whose waiters speak English in Fuengirola is going to be more successful than other bars where they don't, ceteris paribus. The Spanish economy has a very high propertion of income derived from hosting foreigners (and selling and building them houses, at least in the past). Speaking English will be an important asset if Spain is ever to emerge out of the crisis. Speaking German would be good too.


jess869 said:
27 September 2014 @ 11:34

Don Tim- I didn't mention tourism in my article because I live in Zaragoza, which has very, very little tourism from outside of Spain. I'd probably feel a lot different if I lived in Fuengarola.


Engish but not arrogant said:
17 February 2016 @ 20:56

Love all this self affirming stereotypical nonsense you guys are coming out with. Always good to see in evidential form the reason why many English are hated and called arrogant. It always seems to be the worst kind of little Englander that live abroad and turn ex-pat sites like this into mini Daily Mails. One even said they refused to teach English because they don't want to see a world where people speak English; as if them refusing would stem the tide of globalism and societal integration. If that is not King Canute level delusion and conceit I don't know what is. These people are the reason why I never hang out with my fellow English here in Spain. Their insular, self centred, narrow minded world view is appalling when looked at objectively.


Patience said:
24 February 2018 @ 05:21

I know first hand what it's like being a spaniard that does not know English my Spanish teacher is a spaniard from Madrid and she is in the United States and does not know good English


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