Getting better at English
Spain was one of the worst European countries when it came to English proficiency in a 2011 study by Education First, earning a ranking of “low proficiency” and a score of 49.01; only Russia and Turkey fared worse.
By 2014, Spain had risen in the rankings, earning a score of 57.18 and coming near the top of the “moderate proficiency” countries (during the same amount of time France and Italy’s English proficiency levels had plummeted below Spain’s).
According to the study: “the level of English of the adult population of Spain has significantly improved in the last seven years and it is the fourth most improved European country when it comes to English proficiency.”
Qualifications are increasingly just as coveted for jobs within Spain as abroad.
“These days English is a must for any Spanish CV,” Elaine Blaus (pictured above), director of Cambridge English for Spain and Portugal, told The Local, even if applicants are not applying abroad, “many Spanish companies weathered the crisis by exporting.”
“There is no doubt that with the crisis, the desire for people to study English is as strong if not stronger than it’s ever been,” John Pare, director of the British Council’s Young Learners’ Centre, told The Local.
Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the British Council has seen a rise in the number of Spanish adults taking English exams: “It’s an easy connection to make,” said Pare, “they want it on their CV to improve their prospects.”
Desire to move abroad
Young people have borne the brunt of the recession in Spain, where youth unemployment levels are still cripplingly high, at 50.7 percent, the highest in the EU after Greece.
According to a recent study by Cambridge University Press into the attitudes of young people in Spain, 84 percent of young Spaniards said they will leave the country to look for work abroad, with those with a good level of English more likely to leave Spain (89 percent) than those with a lower level (77 percent).
“I've been told by many people that it’s now extremely difficult to find work in my field without a high level of English,” José, an aeronautical engineering student in Madrid who is currently studying for the Cambridge Advanced Certificate in English, told The Local.
Clara, from Madrid who is currently studying for the Cambridge PET exam agrees: “I think many young people see English as a means of guaranteeing employment in the future if not in Spain then overseas,” she added.
The United Kingdom is one of the most popular destinations for young Spaniards, both for work and for study.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who cannot speak English. Photo: AFP
The Cambridge University Press study also revealed that 70 percent of young Spaniards think that being able to speak English is more important than having a university degree. Among young Spaniards it is clear that English is a necessity and many think that their political leaders, particularly Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who cannot speak English, should set an example.
“They are role models in society so perhaps if they spoke English they would encourage more young people to learn English or put more effort into their studies,” said Carla from Madrid.
But younger Spaniards have enjoyed many language learning opportunities that were simply closed to older generations, according to Blaus.
“Nowadays politicians are expected to act on an international stage which is something that has changed quite a lot, Spain used to be much more of a closed country, now the need for languages is much greater than it ever used to be,” she said.
Importance of qualifications
Cambridge English, world famous for its examinations, counts Spain as its biggest market in the world, where more people take the Cambridge Advanced exam than anywhere else on earth. The number of Spaniards taking Cambridge exams has increased by 20 percent every year since the start of the crisis in 2008.
“Generally in Spain it is very important for people to have a qualification and these days when companies are recruiting, they want proof of the level of your language,” said Blaus from Cambridge English.
“You used to see on a CV level of English: intermediate, advanced; now these things are assessed against the European framework of reference B1, B2 so people know what your level is.”
Starting at an early age
It is not only university students and adults hoping English will increase their prospects, many parents want their children to learn the language from a younger and younger age.
It is among child learners that John Pare has seen the biggest changes since the beginning of the recession.
“When I moved to Spain we were teaching 5 – 17 year olds and we now do story time for children as young as two,” he said, describing the regular story times run for toddlers by the British Council.
English has gained importance for parents, José, from Madrid, told The Local: “Before English wasn´t thought to be particularly important but in recent years there has been a 'boom' and parents are now sending their children to extra English classes,” he said.
Blaus has noticed a difference with the rise of bilingual programmes. “Five or ten years ago you would never have seen 14-year-olds passing First Certificate (a Cambridge qualification) whereas now state school pupils in Madrid can get an internationally recognized certificate thanks to the bilingual programme.” (A programme of bilingual schools set up in Madrid).
Improved methods means learning is more fun
A common complaint from many Spaniards used to be that English teaching was too grammar focused; they left school able to ace a grammar test but barely able to speak a full sentence. Now, teaching is very much focused on speaking.
“We want to give people the confidence to speak, even if they feel embarrassed,” said the British Council's Pare, “that is what our method focuses on; getting the words out.”
“Nowadays people are taught much more through a communicative way of teaching,” agreed Blaus. “Spaniards are definitely not as afraid of speaking now and that is what you notice,” she added.