Spanish PM Rajoy: ‘I can’t talk to Obama yet’

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 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

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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Meet the Brit behind the app that is changing the way Spaniards learn English

Madrid-based English teacher Simon Sternberg hit upon a revolutionary idea to improve Spaniards’ grasp of English.

Meet the Brit behind the app that is changing the way Spaniards learn English
Simon Sternberg is the Brit behind Wannalisn. Photo by Zoe Sternberg

After more than a decade teaching English to Spanish students in the capital, Sternberg came up with an idea to help them understand the fast English of native speakers that so often proves to be an obstacle for listening comprehension.

“I realised that there were certain combinations of English words that were just very hard for non-native English people to grasp,” he told The Local.

“I looked at different studies and identified that there are around 50 words that represent about 50 percent of spoken English, and that are very difficult to break down and understand when said quickly”, he explained.

“These so-called clusters represent the difference between the spoken and written forms of the language, and without mastering them it’s very difficult to understand first language English speakers,” he said.

Phrases such as “but it was” and “and I didn’t want to” sound like “badih woz” and “ana din’ wanna” in everyday informal speech.

Sternberg teamed up with entrepreneur Luis Morgado and lead developer Ramiro Blazquez to come up with “Wannalisn”, an app that offers free interactive listening and vocabulary exercises using short clips from movies and television series in a game format they call “edutainment”.


“It’s designed to help you train your ear to understand English as it is spoken in the real world ,” and is proving hugely popular.

“It encourages people to become comfortable and familiar with the fast natural English of native speakers that we hear in movies, TV series, and, of course, in real life.”

The app was launched in May, and is now operational in over 100 countries with 80.000 users worldwide.

And it is already a tool that English teachers in Spain are recommending to their students.

Its popularity comes at a time when Spanish learners of the English language seemingly need all the help that they can get. 

A new ranking places the Spanish as the worst in the EU at speaking English, below even the notoriously bad-at-English French and Italians. 

Unlike their neighbours in Portugal who rank among the best, thanks in part to the custom there of not dubbing over all foreign television and film productions.  

“Watching films and TV can be a very valuable way to learn a language and especially hone listening skills, but watching with subtitles does almost nothing to help that skill,” argues Sternberg. “However, watching the short clips and then engaging with the interactive exercises is hugely helpful and also lots of fun.”

For more about Wannalisn and to try out the app for free CLICK HERE.