Spanish PM Rajoy: 'I can't talk to Obama yet'

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Spanish PM Rajoy: 'I can't talk to Obama yet'
"I say Mariano old boy, why don't you practise your English with that chap over there?" Photo: Sean Dempsey/AFP

English-speaking politicians are few and far between in Spain, but should Spanish MPs' lack of language skills be a reason for national concern? The Local looks at why Spain's political class has struggled to pick up the world's lingua franca.


Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy may have breathed a sigh of relief when he heard of Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday, but not for the reasons you might think.

Rajoy was due to hold a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron in which his famously questionable command of the English language was sure to be put to the test.

But news of the former British leader’s death meant Cameron had to leave Spain and Rajoy was spared the need to flaunt his newly improved linguistic skills.

The Spanish Prime Minister has actually been making an effort to improve his English and with it break the trend of Spanish leaders only being able to speak a bit of French.

Before winning the elections in 2011, Rajoy told fashion magazine Telva: “I can’t talk to Obama in English yet.’

The most he could manage in his first encounter with the UK's David Cameron was to stammer out a few words in Spanglish.

A video of him telling the British Prime Minister "It's very difficult todo esto (all this)" has had thousands of views on YouTube.

Spanish leaders have been the butt of many language jokes ever since the days of Franco.

Former socialist prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero was also ridiculed for remaining seated on his own during an EU summit while other world leaders chattered away in several languages.

Former PSOE president Felipe González preferred using French to English on the international stage.

Some of Spain's leaders are on the other hand linguistic powerhouses.

King Juan Carlos can speak French, Portuguese, Italian and English.

The former president of the Madrid region, Esperanza Aguirre, is proficient in English and fluent in French.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos can even speak some Serbo-Croat and Arabic.

However, figures from an EU survey on linguistic competency show that only 25 percent of Spanish politicians speak another language.

Is it time for Spanish political leaders to head back to the classrooms?

Not according to Lucrecio Rebollo, Constitutional Law professor at UNED university.

"It would be a mistake to make fluency in foreign languages a must for politicians," Rebollo told online daily Libertad Digital.

Rebollo argues that heads of government usually seal a deal rather than negotiate the nitty-gritty, and that charisma and other traits are just as important as linguistic skills.

"Take former French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy. He didn't speak a word of any other language but in international meetings he'd talk to everyone."

Personal charm is not enough, though, according to IMF Business School director Carlos Martínez, who believes Spaniards are missing out on international business opportunities because of their below par language abilities.

Martínez told Nueva Tribuna that he blames Spain's schooling system for not giving enough importance to practical communication skills.

Spain's endemic foreign language problem dates back to when the right-wing dictator Francisco Franco came to power in 1936.

Franco gave French more importance than English in the schooling system, but both were largely theory- based rather than practical.

Mariano Rajoy once said: "Several generations of politicians have been burdened by Spain's lack of interest in language education in the past. I'm also a product of my times." 

The Spanish Prime Minister now has three hours a week of private English lessons. 

In fact, €685,000 of Spanish taxpayers' money was spent last year on French, German and English lessons for staff of the Economy Ministry.

In comparison to their political colleagues abroad, the Spanish and Rajoy fare worse.

German Chancellor Merkel is fluent in Russian and English; Russian President Vladmir Putin speaks English, German and French; and France's President François Hollande gets by in English.

David Cameron and Barack Obama, on the other hand, are not fluent in any foreign languages.

Some Spanish might see it as unfair that Rajoy is expected to learn the world’s lingua franca, while native English speaking leaders rarely bother with another language.

But 82 percent of the Spanish population still thinks English is the key language to have for personal and professional development, followed by French (15 percent), German (14 percent) and Chinese (13 percent). 

According to a survey carried out by Cambridge University Press in January, one in four Spaniards would be willing to give up sex for a year or pay €10,000 to be able to speak the lingo fluently.

Ninety percent of those questioned said they "feel embarrassed when it comes to communicating in English".

Spain is nonetheless a multilingual country.

Aside from Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Aranese, Basque and Galician are spoken by millions of Spaniards.

Maybe it would be better for Spain if Mariano Rajoy put aside his English textbooks and took up a regional language.

Basque? Catalan?

You decide.


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